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Emmy Noether: The Mother of Modern Algebra

M. B. W. Tent
A K Peters
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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This book is one of the best examples of the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover” that I have ever seen. The image on the front cover is of an elderly woman in drab clothing that is very out of focus. It is impossible to determine if she is actually Emmy Noether. She is standing by a bench and in front of either a street or railway car. I do not understand why such a poor image was selected for the front cover. I did a quick Internet search and found several pictures of Noether that would have been far more appropriate. Given that Noether died at the age of 53, it is also unlikely that the image is even of her.

That rant aside, this book is an excellent biography of the premier female mathematician of the twentieth century. As seems necessary when writing for young people, the author engages in a great deal of “literary creativity” in generating the supposed dialog between Emmy and her parents, siblings, students and coworkers. None of it is beyond the bounds of plausible conversation and she is presented as a woman of substance who cared little for the trappings of style and pomp. Everything but her mathematics and the strength of her opinions was plain: her looks, physique, clothing and diet were all necessary incidentals in her life.

Noether was also a pioneer in the role of women in mathematics; she overcame her gender early and then her ethnicity later when the Nazis rose to power in Germany. While she had powerful mathematical friends, it still took determination and perseverance for her to get her degree and a position in academia. All women in mathematics and science owe her a debt for what she accomplished.

Although this book has the obvious target of the teenage female reader, the effective target is much broader. Young males also need to learn how what is now called the glass ceiling for women used to be made of plate steel and was much lower. Older established females need to be reminded on occasion about the women who came before them and used their talent as virtual cutting torches to cut the barriers away.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

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