My Dance is Mathematics
Amalie "Emmy" Noether was born in Germany (1882); she studied mathematics
as an unofficial student at German universities. Because of her gender she was unable
to secure employment except as a substitute for her mentors intheir classes; Noether fled
the Nazis in 1933 and died (in 1935, of cancer) in Bryn Mawr, Pennsyvania.
They called you der Noether, as if mathematics
was only for men. In 1964, nearly thirty years
past your death, I saw you in a spotlight
in a World's Fair mural, "Men of Modern Mathematics."
Colleagues praised your brilliance -- but after
they had called you fat and plain, rough and loud.
Some mentioned kindness and good humor
though none, in your lifetime, admitted it was you
who led the way to axiomatic algebra.
Direct and courageous, lacking self-concern,
elegant of mind, a poet of logical ideas.
At a party when you were eight years old
you spoke up to solve a hard math puzzle.
Fearless, you set yourself apart.
I followed you. I saw you choose
between mathematics and other romance.
For women only, this exclusive standard.
I heard fathers say, "Dance with Emmy --
just once, early in the evening. Old Max
is my friend; his daughter likes to dance."
If a woman's dance is mathematics,
she dances alone.
Mothers said, "Don't tease. That strange one's heart
is kind. She helps her mother with the house
and cannot help her curious mind."
Teachers said, "She's smart but stubborn,
contentious and loud, a theory-builder
not persuaded by our ideas."
Students said, "She's hard to follow, bores me."
A few stood firm and built new algebras
on her exacting formulations.
In spite of Emmy's talents,
always there were reasons
not to give her rank
or permanent employment.
She's a pacifist, a woman.
She's a woman and a Jew.
Her abstract thinking
is female and abstruse.
Today, history books say Noether
is the greatest mathematician
her sex has produced.
They say she was good
for a woman.
This poem and other "mathematical" poems by JoAnne Growney are available in My Dance is Mathematics, published in 2006 by Paper Kite Press. and available from JoAnne. This poem also is included in the anthology: Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008).