Up next in the Essential Ideas series… The story of Emmy Noether.

Not many people realize that the Newtonian concept of *force* has been ousted from modern physics.

But fewer still realize that it was ousted by a woman.

In 1918, Amalie “Emmy” Noether quietly and profoundly changed our understanding of the physical world. And earned herself a place among the greatest mathematicians in history.

What? You’ve never heard of her?

You really should have…

But this is one of those areas where education *so* far behind the curve, that we don’t even know that we missed something.

(It’s like not knowing that Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon… because we didn’t even know that there *was* a moon!)

Allow me to explain…

In school, we all learn about little lumps of *stuff* called “matter,” and the “forces” that they exert on one another.

You see… Once upon a time, it was believed that physics was all about *forces*.

That gravity was an *attractive force* that reached out and drew matter inward… Like a vacuum cleaner, sucking us all toward the center of the Earth… And pulling the planets toward the sun…

It was cutting edge stuff back in 1687.

And still somewhat hip 102 years ago.

But the times have changed…

(Even if education hasn’t.)

*Forces* have given way to beautiful mathematical symmetries.

And the story of symmetry begins with Emmy.

**Emmy****’s Gift**

Born March 23, 1882 in southern Germany, Emmy grew up in an academic family of Jewish descent.

Unable to enroll in university courses due to gender restrictions, Emmy got her education by auditing classes with the permission of her professors.

She studied informally under mathematical geniuses like David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski until 1904, when the University of Erlangen revised its admissions policies to allow the enrollment of female students.

In 1908, Emmy received her doctorate in mathematics, summa cum laude. But even though she remained at the University of Erlangen for the next seven years, she was only allowed an unpaid research position.

In 1915, David Hilbert invited Emmy to join the Mathematical Institute at Göttingen University.

Hilbert and his colleagues were exploring Einstein’s new theory of gravity, and they believed that Noether’s talents were well-suited to their research.

Except that women weren’t really welcome there either…

They could enroll as students at Göttingen. But they weren’t allowed on the faculty.

And so Emmy faced intense opposition by university officials.

Hilbert helped where he could… Announcing upcoming lectures under his own name and then having Noether speak in his place.

But the battle with the administration went on for years…

Thankfully, the sentiments of the university weren’t shared by her colleagues. Or her students.

All of whom loved her.

Emmy was exceedingly generous with her mathematical insights—often allowing her students to take credit for her ideas so that they could advance their own careers.

Many prominent physicists and mathematicians plead Noether’s case to the university in an attempt to have her formally recognized as a member of the faculty.

Even so, it took four years before Emmy was allowed to lecture officially. And another three before she was granted a salary.

Hermann Weyl, another influential Göttingen mathematician, later commented, “I was ashamed to occupy such a preferred position beside her whom I knew to be my superior as a mathematician in many respects.”

It was during her years at Göttingen that Emmy made her enduring contribution to the field of theoretical physics…

An elegant mathematical proof known as *Noether**’s Theorem*.

In simplest terms, Noether’s Theorem states that: *for every continuous symmetry, there is a conserved quantity.*

So what is a “conserved quantity?” And what’s a symmetry?

Well, it’s basically something that stays the same, while something else is changed.

The most familiar example—one that everyone has heard of—is the *law of conservation of energy*.

You’ve heard the archaic version… That “energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changes form.”

In this case, the thing that stays the same is the quantity of energy.

The thing that changes is the passage of time.

But energy isn’t conserved because it’s made of some kind of indestructible *stuff*…

It’s actually a consequence of *time itself*.

Noether’s Theorem showed that since the laws of physics don’t change from moment to moment, then there *had* to be a conserved quantity that stayed the same over time.

In this case: *energy*.

There was no “law” required…

*Energy is conserved because time is symmetric.*

And it isn’t just time.

Space has symmetry too…

The laws of physics don’t change when you move 15 feet to the left… Or when you turn around and face the other direction…

And so linear and angular momentum are conserved as well.

It’s an incredibly beautiful insight!

Thanks to Emmy Noether, physics has shed the concept of force—and become the study of symmetry.

A process of discovering the axes of creation… The lines that remain constant as the universe twists and turns endlessly around us…

Lines like the *speed of light*.

The speed of light isn’t so much a “cosmic speed limit” as it is a *horizon* between space and time.

A line of demarcation that remains the same for everyone, regardless of relative motion.

Another symmetry of the universe.

But we’ll save that bit of nerdiness for another time…

In 1933, Emmy was forced to leave her position at Göttingen University with the rise of Nazi Germany. She later fled to America, where she became a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College and delivered regular lectures at Princeton University.

Still brilliant. Still loved. Still challenged by the sexism of the times.

Emmy Noether died in 1935 at the age of 53, due to complications following the removal of an ovarian tumor.

In a eulogy published by the New York Times, Einstein praised Noether as being “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

Up next: what it *really* meant to Know Thyself…

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## About Zach Herbert

I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.

Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.

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Erinn G says

Okay, you’ve got my attention. Physics is my jam and the above tease was enough to keep me clicking through the site….hope there’s more….