"No Other Like Emmy Noether"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 27 February 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

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 research.

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 on.

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 time...

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter is COSI's Chief Scientist. He is an astrophysicist and offers a wealth of knowledge about our universe. In addition to his COSI position, Paul Sutter is a Cosmological Researcher and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP).