Science Story: Not a Bath House

(When I launched the Advent Calendar of Science Stories series back in December, I had a few things in mind, but wasn’t sure I’d get through 24 days. In the end, I had more than enough material, and in fact didn’t end up using a few of my original ideas. So I’ll do a few additional posts, on an occasional basis, to use up a bit more of the leftover bits from Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist…)

While Eureka is built around stories, it’s really a book about the process of science, using those stories to highlight particular aspects of the scientific process. The hope is that making the process more familiar will both make non-scientists less scared of science, and also better able to recognize the difference between real and fake science.

Of course, this rather tightly constrains the sort of stories that I could use in the book. After all, if the goal is to de-mystify science a bit, I can’t really use stories of discoveries made via the time-honored method of just being smarter than everyone else and working really hard. Which is a shame, because that squeezes out some truly remarkable scientists.

Like, for example, the woman whose picture is at the top of this post, Emmy Noether (photo from this page at Heidelberg; it’s one of the few photos of her that isn’t stiff and formal). Noether’s father was a professor of mathematics at the University of Erlangen, and she was clearly very gifted in the subject. In the early part of her career, she was formally barred from taking courses for credit, but she audited a bunch of courses, and once the restrictions on women attending universities were relaxed, she quickly completed a dissertation in 1907. She spent the next several years working as an unpaid substitute lecturer for her father and others in the department, and doing math.

Her mathematical work was sufficiently impressive that she caught the eye of one of the most distinguished mathematicians of the day, David Hilbert. Hilbert and Felix Klein invited her to come work at the University of Göttingen, where she proceeded to do revolutionary work in both math and physics. In my part of the academic universe, she’s best known for Noether’s Theorem which shows that symmetries in fundamental laws give rise to the conservation laws that are such an essential tool for physics. To mathematicians, though, this is sort of an interesting side line to her really important work, which revolutionized the subfield of abstract algebra.

From a procedural standpoint, alas, Noether’s work doesn’t provide a useful “hook”– she seems to have just been a formidably talented mathematician, who worked really hard and thought deeply about math. I was able to squeeze her into the conclusion of Eureka, though, because of the unfortunate side of her story. As a Jewish woman in early 20th-century Germany, her career was marred by truly appalling levels of discrimination.

As mentioned above, early in her career women were officially barred from higher education, though this was relaxed somewhat in the early 1900’s, allowing her to get her degree. She was still officially barred from teaching at a university, though, and not even Hilbert was able to change that. when Hilbert and Klein invited her to come to Göttingen in 1915, in the middle of WWI, the rest of the faculty refused to grant her a paid position. A famous story has it that one of the other professors asked “What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?,” to which an exasperated Hilbert replied “We are a university, not a bath house!”

Hilbert did manage to get permission for Noether to “assist” him, teaching courses that were officially listed under his name. Through this process, Noether began collecting a group of students who were quite happy to learn at the feet of a woman who happened to be one of the great mathematicians of the era. “Noether’s boys” went on to become some of the biggest names in abstract algebra.

She did slowly achieve recognition in her own right, first getting permission to accept pay directly from students, and eventually being granted adjunct faculty status in 1922. By the 1930’s, she was internationally recognized as a great mathematician, and in 1932 gave a famous plenary talk to the International Congress of Mathematicians. She never formally held the rank of professor, though, until after the Nazis took power– they purged the German academic system of all faculty of Jewish descent, even poorly paid adjuncts, and the Rockefeller Foundation arranged for her to come to the US and take up a full professorship at Bryn Mawr.

So, as I said, I did manage to sneak Noether into the book, not because she did anything distinctive in terms of process, but because she’s a stellar counterexample to idiots who try to claim that women can’t do science at the highest levels. Noether’s contributions to both math and physics were incredibly important, and she made them in the face of discrimination that nobody should ever have to face.


  1. #1 Thony C
    February 11, 2015

    It is a fact that the German’s, especially in Erlangen where she was born, try to keep secret but Emmy was not fired In Göttingen in 1933 because she was Jewish but because she, like many of the teaching staff there at the time, was a communist!

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    February 11, 2015

    They’re doing a great job keeping the secret, as I’d never heard that before.

    (Not denying it, just expressing mild surprise…)

  3. #3 Thony C
    February 12, 2015

    In the 1920s Göttingen University was a hotbed of intellectual socialism at the extreme left of the spectrum. Emmy was associated with various socialist groups at that time. In 1928/29 she held a guest professorship in Moscow and reported very positively about her stay there. When the Nazi’s grace power in 1933 they classified her as a communist and had her removed for her position, along with many others in Göttingen. She even considered returning to Moscow but the bureaucrats held up he work permit application so she went to America instead.

    Following WWII Germany had an even worse dose of ‘reds under the bed’ than America that lasted well into the 1980s, so Emmy’s socialist past was swept under the carpet. By the time the historians got around to seriously researching her life the story that she had been removed as a half Jew, which she was, had become firmly established.

  4. #4 Thony C
    February 12, 2015

    That should read “When the Nazi’s grabbed power…” I hate autocorrect

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