It is quite amusing to find that just as I am drafting an article on mass and energy, in which Emmy Noether, one of the important mathematicians and mathematical physicists of the last century, makes a central appearance, the New York Times decides this is the day to make her deservedly famous among the wider public. A contemporary of Einstein’s, whose respect for her intellect is well-documented, Noether is certainly revered among physicists, but is surprisingly unknown outside of physics and mathematics.
If it’s any indication of her influence on my field, a search of a repository of papers in particle physics, quantum field theory and string theory over the last four decades finds her name in the title of 279 articles, which is pretty darn good for a mathematician who died over 75 years ago; for comparison, Einstein and Feynman’s names appear in over 5000 and over 1500 paper titles respectively, though they were full-time physicists and many things in modern physics were named after them. What Noether did in mathematics I can’t properly characterize — an expert in modern algebra will have to describe that — but within physics, Noether’s name is most commonly associated with a profound mathematical theorem of great importance for physics. It is the theorem that clarifies why some quantities in nature (such as energy and angular momentum) are conserved (physics language for “preserved”, or “unchanging over time”.) We’ll be celebrating the centenary of this theorem in 2015 (it was written down in 1915, though only published in 1918).
I’ll be putting up my mass and energy article up in stages; some part of it should go up tomorrow. In the meantime, enjoy the well-written and apparently correct New York Times article, whose only flaw, perhaps, is that it slightly over-states Noether’s role in physics (she wasn’t as important as Einstein, but that’s hardly a criticism) while almost completely neglecting her important achievements in pure mathematics, some of which also had a later role in physics. And also enjoy Einstein’s memorial tribute to her, which is likely the first time that her name appeared in the Times, and which gives perhaps a more properly balanced description of her achievements.