“Honorary men”

24Mar09

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. This is my contribution.

(If you don’t think mathematics should be included in “technology”, you’re probably not using very good technology.)

During my final year of my mathematics undergraduate degree, a group of us used to spend a lot of time in the faculty cafeteria. We’d sit and drink caffeine and swap approaches to tricky questions on our example sheets. Or just sit and talk.

Sometimes my friend C found it more productive to skip lectures and just work through the notes himself at our table in the cafeteria. I can’t remember the course he was taking – something to do with theoretical physics, probably – but he was tackling a tricky question involving Noether’s Theorem. Update: There’s a nice explanation of what this theorem does here, also written for Ada Lovelace Day!

“I’m sure there’s a better way to do this,” he said. “I bet Noether didn’t use his theorem for this sort of problem.”

“Her,” I said.

“What?”

“Her theorem. Emmy Noether was a woman.”

Interestingly, I don’t know why I knew that. Theoretical physics wasn’t my specialty, so I don’t think I knew much about what C was working on. But at some point I must have read something about Noether. And there are few enough women in the history of mathematics that she had stuck.

I’d known C for a while, and I knew that his response to being corrected was usually to run to extremes and argue his case, no matter how ridiculous. He always knew he was wrong, so it usually degenerated into good-natured debate to see how far he could be pushed before he gave up trying to defend himself.

“Of course she wasn’t a woman. There weren’t any women in mathematics back then!”

“Go and look it up,” I smiled.

“Well, even if she was a woman, she was still a man. All female mathematicians are honorary men.”

“Even me?”

“Of course! You’re the only woman sitting here, aren’t you? That makes you an honorary man.”

At that point, I threw a slice of cucumber at him, and we lost the thread of the discussion in the ensuing scuffle.

Ironically, Noether did have to assume the status of “honorary man”, in some sense. Though she had been invited in 1915 to join the mathematics department of the University of Göttingen, the philosophical department objected to a woman in the position of privatdozent on the grounds that it would be demeaning for men to be lectured by her.

Luckily for abstract algebra and theoretical physics, Noether was undeterred by this. She had already spent seven years teaching at the University of Erlangen without pay, occasionally giving lectures in place of her father Max Noether (also a mathematician), and before that been one of two female students at that university, which at the time had around a thousand male students. Denied the right to lecture under her own name at Göttingen, Noether organised her lectures under the name of the head of the department, one David Hilbert.

It took eight years before she received official recognition in the form of a salaried position (though to be fair, her reputation in the mathematical community was well-established). Noether’s work was ground-breaking and vital for the development of algebra – and it eventually became necessary for even the most hardened sexists in the universities in which she worked to acknowledge that. And she had the advantage that mathematics is a field in which work can be shown definitively to be correct.

There’s a lot more information on Noether on her Wikipedia article. But it’s interesting that her life is continually framed (not just in that article) in terms of the men she worked with. It’s of course important to discuss her collaborations with other mathematicians – and the climate of the time meant that these were mostly men. But Noether was invited to lecture at Göttingen because of her abilities, not just because Hilbert and Klein invited her. She supervised many male mathematicians, but none of them made produced work on her scale (though many built on and developed her work, of course). She may well have had a reputation for eccentricity and disordered appearance – but that would certainly not have marked her out as unusual in a mathematics faculty.

Noether produced some of the most important results of the time. Noether’s Theorem was vitally important to the development of theoretical physics. She also worked on what are now called Noetherian Rings, which are central to ring theory in algebra.

And she did all this despite all the added frustrations of being a woman in academia at the time. Her work in her field helped make possible the work of those that came after her, who built on her theorems and developed her ideas, as mathematicians do. But her role as one of the first women to hold her own in the mathematical world helped make possible the work of all the women mathematicians in all their various fields. Because of exceptional women like Emmy Noether, women who want to study mathematics do not have to be exceptional to be admitted to university. Men and women have to meet the same standards.

C kept up the “honorary man” thing for the rest of the year. I don’t think he ever really understood why I didn’t find it complimentary. “Honorary Noether”, however, would have been a compliment not just for me, but for every student and faculty member in the Department of Mathematics.

For more Ada Lovelace Day posts, go here.</

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4 Responses to ““Honorary men””

  1. 1 MK

    Great post! I’ve just spent the past half hour reading all about Dr Noether. Personally I might have been tempted to throw more than cucumber at your colleague C, you are a person of great restraint…

  2. 2 Laura

    Thanks! She’s one of those people I wish I could have met – though her mathematics would have gone far over my head.
    Over the years, I’ve thrown more than cucumber at C – and more importantly, I tend to win our arguments, too. I’ll make a feminist of him yet…

  3. 3 Colin McLarty

    Very nice post. A minor correction though. Gottingen was not organized into departments like a university today. Mathematics was in the Philosophical Faculty which was what we in the US usually call Arts and Sciences now. So it was not a philosophy department that opposed Noether, it was the Philosophical faculty as a whole, while the mathematicians in it supported her.


  1. 1 Emmy Noether - Ada Lovelace Day! « wendy’s wordpress

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