I recently read Auguste Dick’s biography of Emmy Noether, the great German-American mathematician who revolutionized areas of both mathematics and physics. I knew that she had died unexpectedly at age 53 of complications from surgery, but somehow I had never really thought about what that meant. It’s a little hard to be too sad that someone born in 1882 has passed away; no matter how long and full her life had been, it would be over by now. But the book’s abrupt ending drove home to me how tragic and unexpected her death was. I was reading about her move to the US, her relationship with the students at Bryn Mawr, and suddenly the book was over because Noether’s life was over. So much was left unfinished.
Dick does us the favor of including some memorial addresses and articles written by Noether's contemporaries in his biography. Hermann Weyl’s address at Bryn Mawr just two weeks after Noether’s death was especially poignant to me. (At least parts of it were. Modern readers will find his comments about her appearance and speculation on the development of her erotic life unwelcome.)
To me, the saddest part of Weyl’s address was not about Noether herself but the state of mathematics in Germany. Noether died April 14, 1935. She had moved to the US in 1933 after being stripped of her hard-won right to teach in Germany due to her political beliefs. (Her family was also Jewish, so if her politics had not led to her dismissal early on, I assume she would have been dismissed later for that reason.) The math department in Göttingen, where she and Weyl had both taught, had been decimated by the Nazis. Weyl’s address later that month alluded to that fact.
In the spring of 1933 the storm of the National Revolution broke over Germany. The Göttinger Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät, for the building up and consolidation of which [Felix] Klein and [David] Hilbert had worked for decades, was struck at its roots. After an interregnum of one day by [Otto] Neugebauer, I had to take over the direction of the Mathematical Institute. But Emmy Noether, as well as many others, was prohibited from participation in all academic activities, and finally her venia legendi [permission to teach], as well as her Lehrauftrag [teaching position] and the salary going with it, were withdrawn. A stormy time of struggle like this one we spent in Göttingen in the summer of 1933 draws people closer together; thus I have a particularly vivid recollection of these months. Emmy Noether, her courage, her frankness, her unconcern about her own fate, her conciliatory spirit, were in the midst of all the hatred and meanness, despair and sorrow surrounding us, a moral solace. It was attempted, of course, to influence the Ministerium [Prussian Ministry of Science, Art and Public Education, later renamed the Reich Ministry of Science, Education and Culture] and other responsible and irresponsible but powerful bodies so that her position might be saved. I suppose there could hardly have been in any other case such a pile of enthusiastic testimonials filed with the Ministerium as was sent in on her behalf. At that time we really fought; there was still hope left that the worst could be warded off. It was in vain.
It shall not be forgotten what America did during these last two stressful years for Emmy Noether and for German science in general.
The “last two stressful years” Weyl spoke of were only the tip of the iceberg. Göttingen in the early 1930s was one of the top math departments in the world. Germany was arguably the best country in the world in which to do math. That changed when a racist, anti-immigrant, right-wing demagogue came to power. Eighty years later, Germany has many great mathematicians doing great work, but it has never fully recovered the status it had in the early twentieth century. The Nazi purges of Jewish people and other political enemies were no small part of the reason American math departments outstripped their German counterparts. Writing in 1935, Weyl did not know the extent of the horrors that were coming, and as I read his words, my heart broke for him, for the other mathematicians whose lives were upended by Nazi policies, and for the millions who did not survive.