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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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(Gender) Symmetry in Physics

I just finished reading Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars by Margaret Wertheim. The book traces the development of physics, highlighting the (lack of) involvement of women and the relationship between the development of physics and religion. It is easy to take issue with Wertheim’s argument that the current culture of particle physics is similar to a priesthood, but it is very difficult to have an “objective” (or anything close to it) view of one’s own culture. The topic deserves a long discussion on its own – especially in relation to other books written about physics from a sociological view.

Wertheim takes the time to describe the lives of many prominent physicists, including Gallileo, Newton, and Einstein. The history she presents is sometimes very different from the mythology many of us physicists know. I basically don’t know any history, so I don’t know how contentious any of her stories are. Wertheim also tells the stories of the few leading scientific women throughout the centuries. Some aren’t lauded today – like Laura Bassi, who “became the second woman ever to gain an academic qualification” in 1732 – perhaps due to the opposition they faced in society. Others she discussed, notably Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether, made huge contributions to modern science, though they received comparably little recognition to their male colleagues.

Emmy Noether

Emmy Noether


Emmy Noether was born in 1882 into a middle-class German Jewish family, where her father was a professor of mathematics at the University of Erlangen. She developed a passion for mathematics, but women were not allowed in the University at the time. She audited classes for 5 years, until in 1904 when women were allowed to enroll. She completed her thesis in 1907 and then taught, researched, and supervised students – all without a title or pay, for 8 years. She then moved to Göttingen University to work with David Hilbert and Felix Klein on the mathematics needed for General Relativity. While Hilbert advocated for her, it wasn’t until 1921 that she was given a position, and still without pay.

Her work during this time was phenomenal. She made huge contributions to the foundation of abstract algebra, the scope of which only a mathematician could appreciate. We know her in physics for finding a relationship between conservation laws and continuous symmetries. For example, conservation of momentum can be derived from the fact that one place in space is the same as another point in space a foot away. Symmetry is very important in physics, especially particle physics. Studying symmetries led to the theory of quarks, and is currently guiding the search for extensions to the Standard Model, such as supersymmetry.

Noether was widely recognized in mathematics by the 1930’s, but was forced out of Nazi Germany in 1933 for being a Jew, as many others were. Einstein and Hermann Weyl were able to move to the Institute for Advanced Study (at Princeton), but Noether was unable to get a research position. She instead moved to Bryn Mawr, a women’s college. In 1935 it appeared as if she would be able to move to the Institute for Advanced Study, but died of a complication from a surgery to remove an ovarian cyst.

While Noether was recognized for her powerful contributions, many women were not (such as Lise Meitner). Emmy Noether was able to become a successful mathematician, even though she was initially unable to enter University. Others never had that opportunity. How much more could Noether have contributed had she not been delayed in her education? For every “successful” female scientist and mathematician in history, how many women had the potential to do great things, but were never taught to read? Following the history in Wertheim’s book, one is able to see that things are only slowly changing.

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