Thursday, June 11, 2015

Emily Noether & The Theory Of Relativity

Forgotten Scientists

Emily Noether had to overcome many social barriers to be accepted as a university lecturer, finally becoming one officially after the end of the First World War, Philips writes: “Sadly, this period would come to an end in 1933. The Nazis came to power, and Noether was not only female but Jewish. The Nazis’ purge of Jewish faculty in German universities had a particularly dramatic effect on the mathematical world. One-third of the mathematics professors, and three-fourths of the heads of Göttingen’s mathematics and physics institutes, were Jewish despite less than one percent of the German population identifying that way at the time.”
Photo Credit & Source: Institute of International Education

An article, by Lee Philips, in Ars Technica looks at the work of  Emily Noether, a female mathematician famous for a theorem named after her that clarified Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (1915). Her life story reveals as much about the hardships of growing up as a Jewish female scientist during the early part of the 20th century as it does about determination in the face of human-made barriers based on long-standing cultural conventions.

That she was a woman cannot be ignored; that she was a Jew in a nation that was then hostile to Jews also cannot be disregarded; yet, the most-important and salient fact is that Noether was a first-rate mathematician with a first-class mind. That forever will be her legacy.

Phillips writes in “The female mathematician who changed the course of physics—but couldn’t get a job” (May 28, 2015):
Emmy (officially Amalie Emmy) Noether, born 1882, did not stand out in any particular way as a child, although she did, on occasion, attract some notice for her astonishing quickness in providing accurate answers to puzzles or problems in logic or mathematics. Her father, Max, was a fairly prominent mathematician, and one of her brothers eventually attained a doctorate in math. In retrospect, perhaps the Noethers may be another historical example of a family with a math gene.
Germany in the early years of the 20th century was not a convenient place for a woman who wanted to pursue mathematics, or for that matter, any academic field outside of a few considered appropriate for the sex. Luckily for Noether, she had a facility with languages and was allowed to become certified as a language teacher. But Noether recognized her passion was in mathematics, and she decided to chase her dream and find a way to study the subject at the university level.
While women were not permitted to be official students at most German universities then, they were able to audit courses with the permission of the professor. Noether started this way, sitting in on classes at the University of Erlangen. But she also spent a semester in 1903−1904 auditing courses at Göttingen, where she first encountered Hilbert. Rules surrounding enrollment eventually relaxed, and Noether later matriculated at Erlangen to earn her doctorate in mathematics (summa cum laude) in 1907. 
However, women were still not accepted as teachers in German universities at the time. Emmy took her fresh doctorate and became an unofficial assistant to her ailing and increasingly frail father, a professor at Erlangen. She also vigorously attacked her own research, forging a personal and original path through abstract algebra. Just a year after her doctorate, Noether's papers and the doctoral research that she was unofficially supervising gained her election to several academic societies, which prompted invitations to speak around Europe. Among those wanting her around, Hilbert reached out to bring Noether to Göttingen in order to tackle Einstein’s theory.
That she did. Noether's Theorem, which she proved in 1915, and which was published in 1918, was a neat way to reconcile Einstein’s theory of relativity with the local laws of energy conservation. The math behind it is beyond my understanding and comprehension, but what I can understand and appreciate is its importance to modern theoretical physics, and in particular to quantum theory.

There is something else equally important here. What this brief story of her life (cut short by ovarian cancer at the age of 53, in 1935, two years after arriving in the U.S.) tells me is that perseverance in the face of traditional obstacles can “open doors” if ever so slightly as to squeeze in. Yet, this is not the same as societal change, which takes much longer after the initial act, or series of acts, of the courageous individual. Change is possible, and the argument that “this is way things are,”or “this is the way it has been for centuries,” can be rejected and replaced—much in the same way that science is self-correcting. This also tells me that traditions or, rather, societal views, can change. Let us call this, for the sake of argument, societal self-correction.

Indeed; this does take place, but it is more evolutionary than revolutionary, a result of increasing and sustained pressure from the public, but it often takes decades for such changes to become government policy and have the necessary legal status and protection. It first requires broad social acceptance, and it is only then that can have the approval and legislative power of government. Such is the case in democracies; in other forms of governments changes work in a far different fashion.

For more, go to [ArsTechnica]

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