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Emmy Noether and the Myth of Genius

Ideas about what genius is have changed through history and can change again—but can they ever become ungendered?

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Emmy Noether, Drs. Emiliana and Monica Noether Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Next to Albert Einstein, if anyone is a genius, Emmy Noether is. In fact, by her early thirties, Noether was spending a lot of time next to Einstein, particularly helping him understand general relativity. Einstein called Noether the “most significant mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” Yet aside from her exceptional mathematical ability, Noether had “surprisingly few” of the stereotypical attributes of genius as Colva Roney-Dougal, a professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of St. Andrews, recently told BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time. Unlike popular portrayals of genius—from the fictional Dr. Frankenstein to mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind—Noether wasn’t especially troubled, nor a loner, nor was she driven mad by her intellect. 

Born in 1882, Noether showed few obvious signs of brilliance as a child, aside from quickly solving logic puzzles. Maths and dancing were Noether’s two loves, and she was a devoted and admired teacher. Later in her career, the theorem she devised to make sense of Einstein’s general relativity remains one of the most consequential developments in modern physics. But the academic establishment of the time largely overlooked her, and history has only recently started to correct the narrative.

When Noether received her PhD in mathematics from the University of Erlangen in 1907, women were not allowed to teach at the university, so for seven years Noether taught, unpaid, under her father's name. The idea that a woman could be a talented mathematician, perhaps even a genius, was not a widely accepted belief in Germany in the early 20th century. Since then the playing field has shifted, but less than hoped for when it comes to notions of genius.

A 2016 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that participants were more likely to ascribe “light bulb” moments of genius—where an idea appears suddenly and effortlessly—to male scientists. While for women scientists, people were more receptive to the metaphor of a “seed taking root.”

Psychologists Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie put forward the Field-specific Ability Beliefs— or FAB hypothesis—whereby “the more a field is believed to require raw brilliance, the fewer the women.” To test their hypothesis, Cimpian and Leslie considered whether cultural beliefs about the importance of genius in an academic field predicts the gender gap in that field. By asking professors and laypeople how important intrinsic ability was versus sustained effort, they gave each field a FAB rating and then compared this to the proportion of women PhDs in these fields. Natural ability was believed to be most important in physics, maths, and music—subjects where far fewer women have achieved PhDs. On the flip side, in the biological sciences, fields with more women PhDs, “genius” is seen to be less important than other factors. This same pattern surfaced when Cimpian, Leslie, and two other researchers compared how frequently students describe their teachers as “brilliant” or a “genius” to the proportion of women PhDs and African American PhDs in the teachers’ subject areas. 

Combined, these studies show that genius is a gendered concept. Society guides men towards some pursuits and women towards others, and the more feminized a field is, the less likely we are to attribute “genius” as a necessary quality for success. By labeling certain activities in this way, we further push women away from them, and entrench the idea that a woman cannot be a genius. 

In Noether’s time, the path for women was especially clear-cut. In her career, not only did she have to turn a blind eye to public perceptions, but she had to knock through the institutional walls that blocked women from becoming mathematicians. Women could not enroll in university, so as a teenager Noether went to a finishing school and learned to become a teacher of French and English. In 1900 the University of Erlang began to admit women—but only to audit courses by asking for permission from each lecturer. Noether was only one of two women among thousands of men to attend the university, where she studied modern languages and history alongside mathematics. Later, other faculty members blocked her from becoming a lecturer at the University of Göttingen, with one of them saying, "What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?" Undeterred, Noether still taught at Göttingen after obtaining her PhD, although unpaid and under a male name. Time and again, Noether was guided away from mathematics, and barred from the spaces where mathematics was taught and created. Innate ability may be a precondition for “genius” but, like all human attributes, environment is the deciding factor. 

Unlike the Hollywood stereotype, the most ground-breaking and creative advances are rarely made by solitary figures but by collectives who flourish together. The creation of general relativity—arguably the most beautiful and successful physical theory—was not a singular lightbulb moment but the combined efforts of Einstein, David Hilbert, and Noether, as well as Carl Friedrich Gauss, Marcel Grossman, Bernhard Riemann, Ernst Mach, and Henri Poincaré, among others. In the early 1910s, Einstein’s theory of general relativity was not working properly; he couldn’t seem to account for one of the most basic observations in nature: the conservation of energy. Einstein’s  colleague Hilbert was aware of Noether’s impressive PhD thesis on invariant systems, so he invited her to the University of Göttingen to help them. The theorem she then developed—Noether’s Theorem—offered a radically new way to understand the physical world by connecting the symmetries found in nature to conservation laws. For example, time is symmetrical: if you did an experiment today and then did the same experiment tomorrow, you would expect the same result. If time is symmetrical, then energy will also be conserved. 

Noether’s Theorem showed Einstein how to get conservation of energy working in general relativity. And it’s fair to say that Noether’s Theorem underpins much of modern physics, including the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which led to the hunt for the Higgs Boson and its discovery in 2012.

Though the myth of a lone genius is appealing, the notion of a creative network—alongside a lot of hard work—is closer to reality.

We can trace our current understanding of genius back to the Enlightenment, which celebrated individual rational thought above all else. At the same time, scientists, artists and industrialists needed the means to profit from their work in the new climate of capitalism. Copyright laws were established, and the cultural idea of individuals producing great works by themselves took root. This Enlightenment experience of individual rationality and authorship was largely male, serving up cultural images of solitary men scribbling away in chaotic labs and studios until they struck upon their lightbulb moment.

It is an idea that has been preserved in our notions of genius today, but one that is unrealistic in the sciences, which are ever more collaborative and interdisciplinary. The average number of authors on a paper has risen through the 20th century, with some subjects in the physical sciences, such as particle physics, often having hundreds or thousands of authors.

Noether was a brilliant individual, but she also demonstrated that mathematics was a collective effort in her dedication to teaching and developing the next deep mathematical thinkers. Students would travel across Europe to be taught by her and many of “Noether’s boys”—as they came to be known—became celebrated mathematicians in their own right.

Ideas about what genius is have changed through history and can change again—but can they ever become ungendered? Cimpian and Leslie’s FAB hypothesis suggests there is a long way to go. Perhaps we would be better off without the word “genius” at all, freeing us to be more precise and realistic in our depictions of brilliant people and the circles that inspire them. Instead of the lone and troubled genius, we can tell stories about collaboration over competition, and about hard work alongside innate ability—and about women as well as men. 

Thomas Lewton is a freelance science journalist and videographer based between London and East Africa. His work has been published on the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Thomson Reuters, Undark, and The Outline.

Lady Science is a magazine for the history and popular culture of science. We publish a variety of voices and work on women and gender across the sciences. We are an independent magazine and rely on the support from our readers and listeners to pay our writers and editors and a number of recurring operational expenses each month. All donations go directly to Lady Science.