Emmy and the Habilitation

This is my contribution to Ada Lovelace Day1

I live on the edge of the university town of Erlangen in Franconia. Because I work afternoons and evening I go most mornings into the town to do my shopping, visit various libraries and to drink a cup of coffee whilst reading the local newspaper. On my way to the café where I start my day I walk past the house where Amelie ‘Emmy’ Noether was born on 23rd March 1882. Emmy Noether, for those of my readers who are not mathematicians or physicists, was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. I would like to emphasise mathematicians and not female mathematicians; there are few male mathematicians who can be considered her equal.

Born the daughter of the local professor for mathematics, Max Noether, Emmy studied maths here in Erlangen and took her doctorate in 1907 under Paul Gordan. For several years she assisted her father in Erlangen. In 1915 she received an invitation to  join David Hilbert, at that time the greatest mathematician in the world at Göttingen. Here she became part of an act in the emancipation of women in Germany that can at best be described as a circus, her Habilitation. In Germany in order to qualify as a professor an academic has to complete a Habilitation, a sort of second doctorate; in fact in East Germany under the so-called socialist government it was called the second doctorate. To habilitate an academic must first write and submit a thesis based on original research and then take an exam that consists of a lecture held and defended before all of the habilitated members of the faculty. As in the history of emancipation there are first women to study, first women to get doctorates Emmy was the first woman in Germany to Habilitate but it was not easy.

It was forbidden by a law, from 1908, for women to habilitate in Prussia so, in 1915, after a lengthy and heated debate within the faculty a special petition was sent to the ministry for an exception in order to allow Emmy to habilitate. The petition was rejected despite the fact that it explicitly stated that this was not an attempt to lift the general ban on women habilitating. During this whole circus my favourite comment was the one professor in the faculty meeting who bitterly opposed Emmy’s habilitation because she would be then entitled to eat in the private dinning room for habilitated faculty members and that was definitely not on. In the end it required Germany to loose the First World War and for the Emperor to abdicate before Emmy could finally habilitate in 1919; although it was clear that Emmy would never become a full professor in Göttingen.

As Hermann Weyl was offered Felix Klein’s chair in Göttingen he rejected it with the argument that as long as Emmy Noether was in Göttingen he was not worthy to take the chair over her head. Emmy told him not to be stupid as she would never be offered a chair and if Weyl didn’t take it somebody else less worthy would.

In 1933 when the Nazis seized power in Germany Emmy was forced to flee Germany not principally because she was a half Jew as is usually claimed but because she belonged to a circle of intellectual socialist in Göttingen. With Weyl’s help she received a position as guest professor at Bryn Mawr in the States. However her period in America was not long as she died as the result of complications following an operation on 14th April 1935.

1) Dr Skyskull has an excellent post to Ada Lovelace Day


Filed under History of Mathematics, Local Heroes

16 responses to “Emmy and the Habilitation

  1. Markk

    I don’t understand why Noether isn’t much more famous. Her ‘symmetry implies conserved property’ theorem is at the heart of the modern way to look at physics. Conservation of Energy implies Time symmetry in physical laws and vice versa is an example.
    Conserved Property Symmetry
    Energy Time
    Momentum Location
    Angular Momentum Direction

    and you can add in a lot of the quantum rules. Leon Lederman has a good description in his book “Symmetry” but to me this ought to be taught in High School.

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  3. ada

    I was lucky to be presented Emmy’s theorems by a woman – otherwise the name Noether might have passed like so many others.

    It is true, that – despite a growing number of female students in mathematics, their participation in advanced research activites is not at all sufficient.
    If nowadays some German universities are proud of nominating their first female professor in Mathematics – they’d better calculate how long it will take until equal conditions are established for men and women in scientific domains.

  4. Great post! Fascinating about the habilitation and Felix Klein’s chair.

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  8. I have wondered why Emmy Noether isn’t more famous, not just for being a woman who did great mathematics, but also for having discovered something so astounding, in the link between symmetries and conservation laws. Symmetries are immediately obvious even to people who don’t understand much mathematics, and conservation laws are also quite understandable. The link between them is awe-inspiring.

    • Yes, absolutely! I graduated in physics without having learned about Noether as a scientist, though I had been introduced to the theorem as such. I stumpled upon her name recently, when reading about quantum field theory, and also wondered why I had learned so much about the achievements of Hilbert, Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli etc., and in contrast Noether seems to have fallen into oblivion. I guess you would not find her name in popular science books either.

  9. While Noether’s work in physics is very important (although this was only a small fraction of her own work; she did much more in other fields of mathematics), it is usually not until more advanced physics courses that this material is taught. I don’t think it is due to any sort of bias. Marie Curie (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Lise Meitner), for example, is always mentioned in even brief overviews of nuclear physics. (Curie might be more famous than Meitner because she got the Nobel Prize (twice) (and her husband and daughter did as well). Meitner was suggested several times, but didn’t win, which is also true of many men, of course.)

  10. The Noether rehabilitation [sorry, couldn’t resist] is well underway. This is good and at times reads like a spy novel: “Who Knew What, and When”. http://www.amazon.com/The-Noether-Theorems-Conservation-Mathematics/dp/1461427681/

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  14. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Emmy Noether’s habilitation I wrote a longer blog post on the details of her habilitation based on (partially, just translating) Cordula Tollmien’s work on this. It contains several original quotes and a detailed timeline. Maybe this also of interest to readers of this post.


    Another remark:

    “In 1933 […] Emmy was forced to flee Germany not principally because she was a half Jew as is usually claimed but because she belonged to a circle of intellectual socialist in Göttingen.” does not seem to be correct. She was (by Nazi definition) fully Jewish. And she was fired based on that. At the same time, the curator Valentiner threatend that she could be fired for being a communist as well. See p. 210 in Cordula Tollmien’s article from 1990. In detail, she lost her position due to §3 of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which is for Jews. Not §4 which was for political opponents.

    There are a few more inconsistencies with the mentioned article by Tollmien, but the one above you also repeat in your other articles, so maybe take a look at the literature.

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