Scientists are a famously anonymous lot, but few can match in the depths of her perverse and unmerited obscurity the 20th-century mathematical genius Amalie Noether.She should be known to readers of this blog. I listed her theorem as one of the more important advances in theoretical physics of the 20th century, and it is explained further in my book.
Albert Einstein called her the most “significant” and “creative” female mathematician of all time, and others of her contemporaries were inclined to drop the modification by sex. She invented a theorem that united with magisterial concision two conceptual pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Some consider Noether’s theorem, as it is now called, as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity; it undergirds much of today’s vanguard research in physics, including the hunt for the almighty Higgs boson. Yet Noether herself remains utterly unknown, not only to the general public, but to many members of the scientific community as well.
In 1915 Einstein published his general theory of relativity. The Göttingen math department fell “head over ear” with it, in the words of one observer, and Noether began applying her invariance work to some of the complexities of the theory. That exercise eventually inspired her to formulate what is now called Noether’s theorem, an expression of the deep tie between the underlying geometry of the universe and the behavior of the mass and energy that call the universe home.The NY Times always finds a way to put Einstein at the center of these stories, but it was David Hilbert who got the Göttingen math department excited about relativity. He published the Lagrangian formulation that emphasized the symmetries, not Einstein. He said:
What the revolutionary theorem says, in cartoon essence, is the following: Wherever you find some sort of symmetry in nature, some predictability or homogeneity of parts, you’ll find lurking in the background a corresponding conservation — of momentum, electric charge, energy or the like.
Every boy in the streets of Gottingen understands more about four dimensional geometry than Einstein...I do think that Hilbert and Noether were more important to 20th century physics than Einstein. I do not think that Noether is under-appreciated because she was a woman. They don't give Nobel prizes for that sort of theoretical work whether it is done by a man or a woman.