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. In 1909 she joined 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