Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Poetry of Logical Ideas

When the NY Times failed to publish an obituary following the death of noted algebraist Amalie "Emmy" Noether, Albert Einstein corrected the omission with a letter to the editor (noting Noether's accomplishments) published on May 5, 1935. In addition to his praise for one of the most accomplished mathematicians of all time, Einstein said this of mathematics: "Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." In the 1960s, as I climbed into the male-dominated world of mathematics, Emmy Noether was one of my heroes. Many years later I wrote this poem.

My Dance Is Mathematics   by JoAnne Growney

    Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
     Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

     Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
     I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

               From "Dirge without Music" by Edna St Vincent Millay; offered
               by Hermann Weyl in a Memorial Address for Amalie "Emmy" Noether  
               on April 26, 1935 at Bryn Mawr College.
They called you der Noether, as if mathematics
was only for men. In 1964, nearly thirty years
past your death, I saw you in a spotlight
in a World's Fair mural, "Men of Modern Mathematics."

Colleagues praised your brilliance--but after
they had called you fat and plain, rough and loud.
Some mentioned kindness and good humor
though none, in your lifetime, admitted it was you
who led the way in axiomatic algebra.
Direct and courageous, lacking self-concern,
elegant of mind, a poet of logical ideas.

At a party when you were eight years old,
you spoke up to solve a hard math puzzle.
Fearless, you set yourself apart.

I followed you and saw you choose
between mathematics and other romance.
For women only, this exclusive standard.

I heard fathers say, "Dance with Emmy--
just once, early in the evening. Old Max
is my friend; his daughter likes to dance."

If a woman's dance is mathematics,
she dances alone.

Mothers said, "Don't tease. That strange one's heart
is kind. She helps her mother with the house
and cannot help her curious mind."

Teachers said, "She's smart but stubborn,
contentious and loud, a theory builder
not persuaded by our ideas."

Students said, "She's hard to follow, bores me."
A few stood firm and built new algebras
on her exacting formulations.

In spite of Emmy's talents,
always there were reasons
not to give her rank
or permanent employment.
She's a pacifist, a woman.
She's a woman and a Jew.
Her abstract thinking
is female and abstruse.

Today, history books proclaim that Noether
is the greatest mathematician
her sex has produced. They say she was good
for a woman.

Amalie "Emmy" Noether was born in Germany (1882) and educated there; she fled the Nazis to the US in 1933 and died on April 14, 1935 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.


  1. Poetry of Logical Ideas

    I came across the poem “Dirge without Music” by Edna St Vincent Millay recently in Garrison Kellior’s anthology of Poems “Good Poems” the poem has a defiant tone which I can understand is to be expected when someone leaves us whom we do not want to go. There is another poem in his collection with a similar tone by John Updike titled “Perfection Wasted “which talks about the magic be gone that took a lifetime to create.

    I like the line in your poem “At a party when you were eight years old, you spoke up to solve a hard math puzzle.”

    It is these moments in a person’s life when the light bulb goes on and we are changed forever. We most likely have to wait until we are much older to realize to significant of the event but after we find ourselves going back to that moment over and over we realize it is so.

    I read Einstein’s letter in the New Your Times and read Hermann Weyl Memorial Address for Emmy which was fascinating.

    I also came across a column titled “The Mathematical Tourist” in the Mathematical Intelligencer which featured an article on Emmy Noether. The article included the following:

    “This is when Hilbert made his famous statement; I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as Privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bathing establishment.” The article also gave me the idea to go look up some sites around the UC Berkeley Campus.

  2. Too bad when the poets are the ones who perpetuate stereotypes. History books don't say "she was good for a woman." Even in her time she was recognized as "one of the ten or twelve leading mathematicians ... in the entire world" and the "founder" of modern algebra (quoting Norbert Weiner).

    1. Thanks for dropping by my blog. Probably there will forever be debate about whether writing to EXPOSE a stereotype (as I have done) also perpetuates it. Here is a link to an article from 1982 that still hangs on to offering a gender label in its title, "Emmy Noether, Greatest Woman Mathematician" -- http:///www.matharticles.com/ma/ma069.pdf and here is a link to a brief bio of Noether: https://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/noether.htm
      We read and we learn.