Bryn Mawr Prof Deserves Some Credit for Higgs Boson
Here’s what I know about the Higgs boson:
1. It’s a big deal.
2. Its discovery (tentative, the science folks seem quick to emphasize) has been, for theoretical physicists, the equivalent of finding a light switch in a dark room you knew was there but had been groping around for .. for 50 years.
3. Apparently, it has something to do with proving that the universe is symmetrical. This may not sound immediately awesome, but read this article from the Guardian and it will. (The article also features a clear and probably thus inaccurate but still lovely definition of the bosons as “treacle.”)
It’s this last fact I want to focus on, because it leads us to an extraordinary and unsung hero of this boson business, someone quite unlike the gray-haired affable-looking physicists seen all over the news this past week—squinting in the light of day and waving and smiling and thumbs-upping and weeping and generally celebrating their accomplishments in unusually human and relatable ways.
This unacknowledged genius was a Bryn Mawr professor, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who arrived in the U.S. in 1933 having long since published a mathematical theorem that some physicists place in importance alongside the Pythagorean theorem. She was also a woman, Emmy Noether, and unlike Professor Higgs and his fellows—whose names must already be etched on this year’s Nobel Prize—she never received due recognition in her lifetime. Nor, to be honest, has she since.
Noether was, as far as I can tell, a real badass. In a time when women rarely pursued any kind of higher education (and then only a teaching certificate), she battled with the German university system to allow her to continue her studies into graduate work. After her dissertation was published, she taught for years without pay and without an official position, since women were summarily excluded from professorships. When she did finally break through the glass ceiling, she received only an “extraordinary”—and unpaid—professorship. She loved to dance, never married, ate messily, refused to adhere to any lesson plan in her lectures, and, after being removed from her position at the University of Göttingen by the Nazi regime, continued to host mathematical discussions for students and mentees in her home.
And, at the age of 33, she showed that the conservation of energy was not violated by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Or anyway, something pretty much like that. Noether’s theorem proves (I think, don’t quote me here) that any physical system (an experiment, a rock) that behaves the same no matter how it’s oriented in space has a certain symmetry, and thus conserves its momentum. Basically, she proved that the laws of motion are symmetrical, that the universe has an inherent and underlying symmetry—which is, apparently, the foundation for the reasoning behind the existence of the Higgs boson.
In light of all this, I ask: Why doesn’t every sixth-grade kid learn this woman’s name alongside Newton and Einstein and Pythagoras? Why, oh why are we still so loath to acknowledge the contributions of extraordinary women to the fields of math and science (and, you know, in general)? And where, oh where is there someone who can explain to me what this theorem ACTUALLY means? Because I imagine it’s pretty cool; I imagine it could teach me about the universe; I imagine it’s beautiful.