Sunday, June 1, 2008

Not a Bath-House

David Hilbert

"I don't see why the sex of the candidate is relevant -- this is after all an academic institution not a bath-house!"

A just sentiment addressed in exasperation by the great German mathematician, David Hilbert, to the Academic Senate of the University of Goettingen, then (ca. 1915) the premier center of mathematics in Europe, upon the refusal of his male colleagues to allow the brilliant algebraist, Emmy Noether, to do her Habilitation so that she could teach at the university.

Emmy Noether

Hilbert's outburst expresses well the theme of this blog: the stupidity and pointlessness of the prejudice, opposition, lack of recognition and worse suffered by women in science and mathematics through the years at the hands of their male colleagues and the institutions they controlled (and continue to control).

Emmy Noether is one of many remarkable and too-little-known women who have put up with the Bath-House mentality of their male colleagues in order to do the scientific work they loved. When we examine their lives we see how often they were not only great scientists but were also great human beings. Perhaps they had to have great characters and great hearts in order to put up with the stupidity with which they were confronted. This must have certainly been true of Emmy Noether, for here is what another great German mathematician, Hermann Weyl, had to say about her in 1933 when she was forced by the Nazi's to give up her position and flee Germany:

"A stormy time of struggle like this one we spent in Goettingen in the summer of 1933 draws people closely together; thus I have a vivid recollection of these months. Emmy Noether -- her courage, her frankness, her unconcern about her own fate, her conciliatory spirit - was in the midst of all the hatred and meanness, despair and sorrow surrounding us, a moral solace." (Quoted from Byers and Williams eds., Out of the Shadows, 92 (2006))

She died at the age of 53 "at the summit of her powers," according to Weyl, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylania, of complications following an operation. Albert Einstein commemorated her in a long letter to the New York Times. He had this to say about Emmy Noether:
In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance.

As the father of a gifted daughter and two precocious granddaughters it is stories such as this which have inspired me to do this blog.

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