Emmy Noe­ther: The Most Impor­tant Math­e­mati­cian You’ve Nev­er Heard Of

Helaine Beck­er, Kari Rust (illus.)

  • Review
By – March 8, 2021

Today, unlike in the past, there are many pic­ture-book biogra­phies of notable female sci­en­tists and math­e­mati­cians. By now, some of these pio­neers are wide­ly giv­en the recog­ni­tion they have long deserved. How­ev­er, it is espe­cial­ly encour­ag­ing to find books about those who are still overlooked.

The cen­tral premise of Emmy Noe­ther is that Noe­ther should be a house­hold name, but, unfor­tu­nate­ly, she remains rel­a­tive­ly obscure. Helaine Beck­er and Kari Rust have tak­en on the chal­leng­ing task of explain­ing Noether’s com­plex con­tri­bu­tions to math­e­mat­ics and physics by dis­cussing both the impor­tance of her work and the prej­u­dices that she con­front­ed dur­ing her career as a Jew­ish woman.

As a young child and as the sci­en­tist she becomes, Emmy stands out for her col­or­ful per­son­al­i­ty. She breaks rules at home and in soci­ety while she strives to under­stand the laws of physics in her pro­fes­sion­al life. Beck­er con­veys how Emmy’s social envi­ron­ment presents one obsta­cle after anoth­er to female genius; she even pro­vides a check­list of unrea­son­able expec­ta­tions. Emmy is unlike­ly to cook and sew,” be pret­ty, gen­tle and qui­et,” or con­ceal her innate intel­lec­tu­al gifts. Rust por­trays Emmy as an endear­ing and rec­og­niz­able girl geek, impa­tient with house­hold tasks and piano lessons. From the look of absorp­tion behind her large eye­glass­es as she stirs a pot on the stove, it is clear that her mind is elsewhere.

Noe­ther grows up and begins her for­mal stud­ies, but men take every oppor­tu­ni­ty to pre­vent her suc­cess. Rust’s pic­tures depict­ing this are fun­ny, intense, and imag­i­na­tive. When Noe­ther is grant­ed per­mis­sion to sit in on lec­tures at the uni­ver­si­ty with­out offi­cial­ly enrolling, we see her sur­round­ed by bored male stu­dents in dark suits. She is illu­mi­nat­ed by a white dress and enveloped in a cloud of bright light as she focus­es furi­ous­ly and takes reams of notes. When she is final­ly allowed to earn a degree, Noe­ther is so enthralled by her research that, after being denied a teach­ing posi­tion, she works with­out a salary. Young read­ers who may not be able to imag­ine such a dark time will find the facts of Noether’s life eye-opening.

Sim­pli­fy­ing sci­en­tif­ic and math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts is chal­leng­ing; there is some­times a dis­par­i­ty between the book’s tone of excit­ing adven­ture in Noether’s life and the task of mak­ing her dis­cov­er­ies com­pre­hen­si­ble to read­ers. The eure­ka moment of under­stand­ing Einstein’s the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty while observ­ing the tra­jec­to­ry of a bowl­ing ball is col­or­ful and excit­ing. Boil­ing down the idea itself is slow­er and less acces­si­ble: For exam­ple, a bowl­ing ball can’t mag­i­cal­ly be cre­at­ed out of noth­ing, and nei­ther can ener­gy. Nor can ener­gy be destroyed. It can move from here to there or even change form, but the orig­i­nal amount always exists some­where.” While read­ers may be bet­ter able to visu­al­ize Noether’s life than grasp her ideas, the book does con­vey the beau­ty of her quest to con­cep­tu­al­ize the laws that gov­ern the universe.

Beck­er gives full atten­tion to the role of anti­semitism in deter­min­ing Noether’s pro­fes­sion­al direc­tion. Noe­ther is always viewed as an out­sider because of her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and the Nazis’ rise to pow­er threat­ens her life and forces her to flee to the Unit­ed States, where she [is] wel­comed with open arms” at Bryn Mawr Col­lege. Rust’s pic­ture of Nazi Brown Shirts” as men­ac­ing fig­ures encir­cling Noe­ther in an omi­nous shad­ow while she stands alone is a pow­er­ful image.

The rest of Noether’s regret­tably short life and career (she died at the age of fifty-three), is marked by appre­ci­a­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly from her women stu­dents. Instead of the priv­i­leged and unmo­ti­vat­ed men at her Ger­man uni­ver­si­ty, she teach­es young women who are as excit­ed as she is by learn­ing. In an illus­tra­tion, Noe­ther faces a trio of stu­dents lis­ten­ing assid­u­ous­ly; one, a woman of col­or, rais­es her hand high. This image leaves a strong impact on read­ers about Noether’s impres­sive achieve­ments, both as a math­e­mati­cian and as an exam­ple of women’s intel­lec­tu­al cre­ativ­i­ty and empowerment.

Emmy Noe­ther: The Most Impor­tant Math­e­mati­cian You’ve Nev­er Heard of is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed. It includes a detailed author’s note with addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion and a list of sug­gest­ed resources.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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