Let me tell you about Emmy Noether, perhaps the most important
mathematician that you've never heard of. I was prompted to share this
by Chris Hurtubise, COSI's Senior Marketing Director, who asked me who
was my favorite female scientist of all time. Of course some
heavyweight contenders immediately came to mind - Caroline Herschel,
Marie Curie, Vera Rubin, and many others - but after some thought I
realized perhaps the most important woman in science wasn't a
scientist at all.
Coming into prominence in the early 20th century, she faced the usual
barrage of sexism and discrimination, having to fight for every
educational opportunity and position. But her work was so remarkable
and groundbreaking that it couldn't be ignored, and she quickly found
herself supported by academic allies that helped promote her and her
Noether contributed to many fields of math, but one area in particular
laid the groundwork for our entire - and I'm not exaggerating here -
modern conception of physics. She discovered a fundamental connection
between symmetries and conservation laws, and that's a big deal.
Here's an example. The COSI floor faculty rely on the fact that they
can do the same demo day after day, and assuming they set it up
correctly every time, they'll get the same results. Thus there is a
symmetry in time for the laws of physics as applied to those demos.
That symmetry, by the eponymous Noether's Theorem, leads to the
principle of conversation of energy.
And the fact that you can pick up the experiment and get the same
result on the opposite side of the building? That's a symmetry in
space, which leads to a conservation of momentum. The equations of
electromagnetism have a certain mathematical symmetry, which leads to
a conserved quantity that you may know as electric charge. And on and
I'm barely scratching the surface of the significance of her insights.
To really give Noether her due will require a whole new post. Next