NORTHER: The Woman Who Clarified Einstein’s Idea
By Eugenia Cheng
Emmy Noether, a pioneer of abstract math, helped explain the theory of relativity to mathematicians
I find it hard to memorize numbers; I have no emotional connection to them, contrary to stereotypes of mathematicians. So when I want to remember a phone number, for example, I am more successful if I translate the numbers into musical notes or words.
I think of this as a mathematical technique, because math is about making connections between different topics to help our thought processes. Often we start with something hard to understand and build a connection with something more intuitive.
One of my favorite examples of this involved Emmy Noether, a brilliant German mathematician from the early 20th century. The anniversary of her death was April 14, and her life story continues to be relevant along with her math. She was in the forefront of women mathematicians at every stage of her education, but after finally being given a teaching position at the University of Göttingen, she was removed by the Nazis because she was Jewish. Hired by Bryn Mawr College, Noether found refuge in the U.S., but she died only two years later at the age of 53.
Still, Noether laid the foundations for modern abstract mathematics. At the time, mathematicians were starting to realize that instead of studying the properties of specific objects, they could study systems of general properties. For example, instead of studying numbers and arithmetic directly, we study general systems in which you can add and multiply, and show that numbers are just one example. We can use the same techniques to study other examples. This is a central idea of contemporary math, and Noether’s work was at its beginning.
But Noether also proved a brilliant theorem making a connection between pure math and physics. Mathematicians David Hilbert and Felix Klein were trying to understand Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and in 1915 they invited Noether to visit them in Göttingen as she was an expert in a part of pure math that they thought would help. Einstein was then also invited, and there followed an intense correspondence between Einstein, Hilbert and Klein in which they repeatedly refer to how much Noether helped them to understand the math behind the physics.
Culled from World Street Journal