Sunday, September 14, 2008

Add to Meitner, Noether

Pliable has an excellent post on Lise Meitner, the woman who was responsible in no small part for the discovery of nuclear fission, which earned Otto Hahn the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In l'affaire Meitner, Hahn comes off as halfway decent, though not nearly as decent as he would have been had he insisted on including Dr. Meitner in the glory.

Another woman whose contribution to modern science, at least mathematics, which is somewhat more precise than experimental science, is often neglected is Emmy Noether.

She struggled to find acceptance in the male-dominated field of mathematics, which, while still heavily weighted toward men today, was something less than hospitable to women in Germany after the First World War. Despite a climate that wasn't conducive to such work, Noether revolutionized the field of abstract algebra in a way that, in my view, is an equal to Évariste Galois' invention of group theory at 20 the night before he was killed in a duel. To see how important Noether's work is to abstract algebra, imagine what it would be like without the isomorphism theorems. It would probably still be workable, but it would look way different.

Add to her struggles to find a place in the academy the fact that she was driven from her post by the Nazis and that she died before her time in a bizarre and tragic manner, and you have a life that was far from the pleasure cruise one might think necessary for someone that smart to produce at her peak levels. She had to work to find her place in institutions that judged her on the most facile and superficial levels, and was driven from her homeland by a more egregious form of that same intolerance. She lived only two years after coming to America, and the mind boggles to think what she would have done with another twenty or thirty years.

Noether received attention from colleagues like David Hilbert and Albert Einstein, and praise of her genius is not wanting; still, I think that an example like Emmy Noether might inspire young people to take an interest in mathematics. The notion that someone like Évariste Galois or Emmy Noether (and they really do need to be mentioned in the same breath) might be out there, but bored to tears by a math class they comprehended long ago or discouraged by various factors, is really astonishing to behold.

Also, when we hear alarmist stories about women in science, it's a pleasant tonic to know that genius is genius, regardless of the gender of the body it inhabits. The beautiful thing about mathematics is that, in its pure form, it requires no laboratories or major research institutions - only curiosity and a lot of paper.

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