Today’s Google doodle honors Emmy Noether, an early 20th century German mathematician who made tremendous contributions to the fields of mathematics and physics. Noether revolutionized scientific understanding of energy conservation with her discovery of the connection between symmetry and conservation laws—now known as Noether’s theorem. Einstein called her “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”
But in spite of her accomplishments, Noether spent her life fighting for acceptance and recognition. She lived during a time when few female students were accepted to German universities, and according to The Washington Post, she was initially blocked from enrolling in courses at the University of Erlangen. Vox writes that in 1915, mathematician David Hilbert tried to persuade the University of Göttingen to hire Noether, but the faculty refused. So Noether taught under Hilbert for four years, with many of her lectures appearing under his name. She was not paid for her work.
When it comes to the maths and sciences, women thinkers are often overshadowed by prominent men. But female mathematicians have long been changing our understanding of the world with their audacity and brilliance. Here are five you should know about.
- Émilie du Châtelet (1796-1749): A wealthy Paris socialite, Émilie du Châtelet defied cultural expectations for her sex by aggressively pursuing her studies of math, physics, and philosophy. Even after her marriage and the birth of her children, du Châtelet continued to study mathematics under the direction of Alexis Clairaut. In the 1730s, she began an affair with Voltaire, a relationship that appears to have been as much intellectual as it was sexual. Du Châtelet spent the last years of her life working on a translation of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which was published with a preface by Voltaire. It is still considered the standard French translation of Newton’s most famous work.
- Sophie Germain (1776-1831): As a child, Sophie Germain started reading her father’s books on mathematics after French revolutionary fighting made it too dangerous for her to play outside. Germain was 18 when France’s Ecole Polytechnique opened, and because women were not allowed to attend, she borrowed notes from male students. Germain submitted her calculations under a man’s name to the mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, who ultimately became her mentor. Germain was the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences for her defining work in elasticity theory. She also shaped contemporary understanding of Fermat’s Last Theorem.
- Ada Lovelace: The daughter of English poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was reportedly tutored in maths and sciences because her mother believed that rigorous study would prevent Lovelace from developing her father’s moody disposition. When she was around 17, Lovelace met Charles Babbage, who is credited with inventing the first mathematical computer. In 1842, Lovelace was asked to translate an article about Babbage’s “Analytical Engine.” She did, but she also added her own extensive theories about the machine. In her notes, Lovelace described how codes could be created that would allow the engine to process not only numbers, but also letters and symbols. She also proposed an algorithm for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, which is said to be history’s first piece of computer code.
- Sonya Kovalevsky (1850-1891): Sofia Kovalevskaya liked to say that she began studying math as a baby; her father’s old calculus notes were reportedly plastered onto the walls of her nursery to make up for a shortage of wallpaper. After finishing her secondary schooling in St. Petersburg, Kovalevskaya was determined to continue her studies at the university level. The closest universities open to female students were in Switzerland, but only married women were allowed to attend. So Kovalevskaya entered into a marriage of convenience with Vladimir Kovalevskij, a paleontologist who would go on to collaborate with Charles Darwin. Kovalevskaya discovered what is now known as the “Kovalevskaya Top,” a principle that describes how the mass of an object impacts its spin. She became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude.
- Marjorie Lee Browne (1914-1979): Marjorie Lee Browne was the third African-American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. She was born in Tennessee and her father, a postal clerk, encouraged his daughter to take her studies seriously. In spite of the hostile racial climate that permeated the country, Browne pursued her doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. She joined the faculty at North Carolina Central University and in 1960, Browne received a $60,000 grant from IBM to set up a computer on the NCCU campus. It was the first time that technology of that caliber had been established at a minority college.