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UCL Biochemical Engineering



Emmy Noether is the most remarkable mathematician you’ve never heard of

By Vasos L Pavlika, on 4 January 2022

Her theorem is considered as important as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

She had a number of very eminent admirers of her work including A. Einstein (1879-1955) who was very impressed with her work. Her work is concerned with symmetry breaking and conservation laws, well known in the Quantum and Relativistic worlds.

Emmy came to Göttingen University in 1915 having been invited by David Hilbert (of the 23 problems fame, Kurt Godel (1906-1978 solved the second) Paul Cohen (1934-2007 proved the Continuum hypothesis) and Felix Klein (1849-1925 of the bottle fame), who wanted her expertise in invariant theory to help them to understand certain problems in general relativity, Hilbert had observed that the law of conservation of energy appeared to be contradicted in General Relativity. Noether provided the resolution of this paradox, providing a fundamental tool for modern theoretical physics, with Noether’s first theorem, which she proved in 1915 and published in 1918. She not only solved the problem for General Relativity, but also determined the conserved quantities for every system of physical laws that possesses some continuous symmetry. After looking at her work, Einstein wrote to Hilbert:

“Yesterday I received from Miss Noether a very interesting paper on invariants. I’m impressed that such things can be understood in such a general way. The old guard at Göttingen should take some lessons from Miss Noether! She seems to know her stuff“.

Like many of the great Jewish scientists in Germany at the beginning of twentieth century she was expelled from Germany due to the emergence of the Nazi movement along with “Giants” including Max Born (1882-1970), and Richard Courant (1888-1972) who wrote the now-famous books that I have in my office at UCL, “Mathematical Methods for Physicists” by Courant and Hilbert. Staying with books a great book to read to delve into the workings of Max Born’s mind is “My life, Recollections of a Nobel Laureate” by Max Born.

Miss Noether is certainly an unsung “Giant” of Mathematics and Physics.

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