Honoring the Legacy of Emmy Noether

Regarded by Hermann Weyl, past Faculty (1933–1955) in the School of Mathematics, as “a great woman mathematician…the greatest that history has known,” Amalie “Emmy” Noether was a pioneer in her field, advancing the study of abstract algebra and forging a path for future women working in math.

Noether initially arrived in the U.S. in 1933, shortly after being appointed to an official teaching position at Universität Göttingen in Germany. She was unable to continue working at the university as she was forced, alongside many of her fellow German scholars, to flee both her home and academic institution by the Nazis. From 1933–35, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania supported Noether as one of the only female mathematicians working in higher education. While at Bryn Mawr, Noether also visited the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) on a regular basis to deliver informal lectures to the resident scholars.

At this time, the Institute served as a haven for many displaced scholars, including Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. IAS Faculty took active roles in advocating for Noether and their other German colleagues to receive placements at American educational institutions. In his capacity as a member of the Emergency Committee for Aid of Displaced German Scholars, Oswald Veblen, past Faculty (1932–60) in the School of Mathematics, collaborated with his fellow Committee members and the President of Bryn Mawr to raise the funds necessary for Noether’s salary.

Noether’s time in America was one of uncertainty, marked by continuous questions surrounding how she and other German scholars might be both financially and intellectually supported in the U.S. However, despite these challenges, Noether continued her research, educating the next generation of female mathematicians at Bryn Mawr and working to advance the field of mathematics alongside IAS scholars.

The Institute’s Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center houses a number of unique and illuminating primary source documents that provide a closer look at Noether’s career, accomplishments, and the people whose lives she touched through her work. Among these items are a set of handwritten notes taken during one of Noether’s lectures at Universität Göttingen. The notes were compiled by Otto Neugebauer, a historian of science who served as a frequent Member in the Schools of Historical Studies, Natural Sciences, and Mathematics during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Another remarkable document is an offprint of Noether’s 1918 publication “Invariante Variationsprobleme,” which was circulated around the IAS academic community. The document made its way into the collections of Oswald Veblen, and later those of past Faculty (19722007) Robert P. Langlands. The offprint features annotations made by the scholars who studied this piece of Noether’s work.

Emmy Noether archival material
Maurianna Kowalski
Archival documents from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center on display in Fuld Hall.

Today, Noether remains well known for her theorems linking symmetries (namely the notion that certain physical principles, and the equations describing them, do not change across time or space) with conservation laws (the idea that some quantities, such as energy, must remain constant and cannot be created or destroyed). Noether proved that every conservation law has an associated symmetry and vice versa, a contribution that, during the twentieth century, became integral to the so-called “standard model” of particle physics.

Noether also introduced the mathematical concept of “Noetherian rings,” a class of easily identifiable mathematical rings that have the same internal structure, comparable to a row of houses which share the same internal layout. Many mathematics departments have also adopted the term “Noetherian Ring” to refer to groups that support and connect women, and those who identify with gender minorities, working in the field.

From June 19­–23, IAS is hosting a conference entitled Celebrating 100 Years of Noetherian Rings, organized by current Visiting Professor Wei Ho, Robert & Luisa Fernholz Professor Akshay Venkatesh, and Chenyang Xu, past Member in the School of Mathematics (2008, 2014) and current Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. The conference celebrates Noether’s contributions with research talks from scholars working in many areas of algebra, broadly construed, including algebraic geometry, commutative algebra, number theory, and representation theory. The event is sponsored by the Minerva Research Foundation and National Science Foundation.

A display of archival materials related to Noether’s life and work is available to view in the Fuld Hall Common Room for the duration of the conference.