On Thursday evening, audience members can meet a mathematician whose achievements took her places where society said her gender and ethnic heritage couldn’t let her go.
When “Diving into Math with Emmy Noether” is presented at 7 p.m. Thursday in Cabell Hall Auditorium in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, audience members can learn more about a mathematician whose work helped solve one of the central problems in Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
“There are many names in science that are well known. Einstein. [Isaac] Newton,” said Ken Ono, chair of UVa’s Department of Mathematics. “We want Emmy Noether’s name to be one — a household name.”
Noether’s contributions to the field of abstract algebra are considered crucial to the development of modern physics. That includes Noether’s theorem of differential invariants in the calculus of variations and her Noetherian rings theory, which is taught in classrooms around the world today. But her path was filled with obstacles to overcome.
Noether entered academia in her native Germany at a time when women were not allowed to pursue graduate degrees in the sciences or to serve as faculty members. When she finally was accepted to teach at the University of Gottingen, she had to do so using a man’s name.
She lost her right to teach at Gottingen in 1933, when Jews who had not demonstrated their loyalty to Germany by serving in World War I were forbidden to teach at universities.
Noether accepted an offer to teach as a visiting scholar at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania later that year and also began a series of lectures at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Those lectures captivated leading figures in the field and inspired up-and-coming American mathematicians.
Her fresh start in the United States was cut short in 1935, when she died four days after pelvic surgery, at age 53. Einstein, the physicist who had gained so much from her research, wrote her obituary.
The play by portraittheater Vienna is presented as part of the Austrian theater company’s fall 2022 tour. Anita Zieher stars as Noether, and Sandra Schüeddekopf is the director. The 65-minute play is presented in English.
The tour performance at UVa is a team effort by the Department of Mathematics and Department of Physics, in cooperation with the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality; Department of History; and College of Arts and Sciences. The collaboration will give audience members a chance to learn about a mathematician who had a knack for identifying and recognizing relationships in the world of numbers and bringing people together to share important ideas.
Ono said Noether “was raised in a household where math was in the air.” Her mathematician father encouraged her talent, and she grew up with a brother and cousin who pursued the subject. But as a woman, Noether was not permitted to purse advanced degrees or to share her influential discoveries by teaching on the university level.
“Women in STEM? We’re still fighting that today,” Ono said.
Many chapters of the Association for Women in Mathematics are named Noetherian Rings in her honor, Ono said. And Noether herself fought to break down barriers for other women. Ono said she trained a talented cohort of women while working at Bryn Mawr, including Olga Taussky-Todd, who became an influential mathematician in her own right.
A pioneer in computer science and algebraic number theory, Taussky-Todd was the first woman to serve as a full professor at California Institute of Technology.
“They had their seminars under a big oak tree at Bryn Mawr,” Ono said.
In addition to being a math professor, Ono is a film producer. His team at Infinity Arts Foundation is in the process of pursuing a film adaptation of Thursday’s play.
For fans who’d like to read more in the meantime, the companion book, “Proving it Her Way — Emmy Noether, a Life in Mathematics,” by David E. Rowe and Mechthild Koreuber, combines a brief overview of Noether’s life and career with information and photos from the original play.
Other films from the team include “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” based on Robert Kanigel’s book about Indian mathematician Srinivas Ramanujan, and the upcoming “Freud’s Last Sessions,” which will star Anthony Hopkins as Sigmund Freud.
Thursday’s performance is free. It is suitable for all ages, so consider bringing a devoted STEM student in your life for a grounding in history and a dose of inspiration.
“Without Emmy Noether, where would we be today?” Ono said.
Learn more about the play itself at www.portraittheater.net. For details about the event, go to math.virginia.edu.
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