Emmy Noether, whom I’ve blogged about a couple of times in the past, is without any doubt one of the greats in the history of mathematics, as is well documented by the testimonials written by some of the greatest contemporary mathematicians and physicists and collected in Auguste Dick’s slim but well research biography, Emmy Noether: 1882–1935.
Yesterday was World Maths Day and the Royal Society tweeted portraits of mathematicians with links to articles all day, one of those tweets was about Emmy Noether. The tweet included a paraphrase of a well known quote from Albert Einstein, after all what could be better than a quote from old Albert the greatest of the great? Well almost anything actually, as the Einstein quote is highly demeaning. As given informally by the Royal Society it read as follows:
Emmy Noether was described by Einstein as the most important woman in the history of mathematics.
What Einstein actually wrote in a letter to the New York Times on the occasion of her death in 1935 was the following:
In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered, methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians.
In the same year, but before she died, Norbert Wiener wrote:
Miss Noether is… the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort now living, and a scholar at least on the plane of Madame Curie.
Now I’m sure that the Royal Society, Albert Einstein and Norbert Wiener all meant well, but take a step back and consider what all of them said in their different ways, Emmy Noether was pretty good for a woman [my emphasis].
Emmy Noether was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, male or female, man or woman, about that there is absolutely no doubt, to qualify that praise with the term woman is quite simple demeaning.
In my mind it triggers the text of Melanie Safka’s mega pop hit from 1971, Brand New Key:
I ride my bike, I roller skate, don’t drive no car
Don’t go too fast, but I go pretty far
For somebody who don’t drive
I been all around the world
Some people say, I done all right for a girl [my emphasis]
On twitter, space archaeologist, Alice Gorman (@drspacejunk) took it one stage further, in my opinion correctly, and asked, “Dare I cite Samuel Johnson’s aphorism about the talking dog?” For those who are not up to speed on the good doctor’s witticisms:
I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” – Boswell: Life
Can we please in future when talking about Emmy Noether resist the temptation to quote those who affix their praise of her mathematical talents with the term woman and just acknowledge her as a great mathematician?