Sunday, 26 April 2015

The vagaries of history, Nazi persecution and Emmy Noether

History is a queer thing; don't you think? How some things, events or people stick in the memory and others are quietly forgotten by the majority of people. How few remember Harold's staggering victory at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066; how the only name that  most recall in connection with penicillin is Alexander Fleming, who incidentally did next to nothing except notice the mould's anti-bacterial effects, and Florey and Chain are dismissed as is the work of Sir Edward Mellanby behind the scenes to ensure that the drug was available to treat allied wounded in World War Two; how Rosalind Franklin's contribution to the discovery of DNA's double helix was conveniently ignored after her death from cancer when it came time to hand out Nobel prizes, although to be fair Watson's book did nothing to discourage such arrant disregard for her contribution (They apparently did not get along too well.)

I was reminded of this by a small anniversary; the centenary of a mathematical discovery which underpins much of the Standard Model of quantum mechanics.  Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, I hear you cry! Well, actually, no! Amelie Noether (pronounced Amelia Nöther not Amali No-ether). Never heard of her? Scarcely surprising, very few have and yet her mathematical formulas laid the ground work for all of the symmetry found in the Standard Model. At the same as Einstein was laying down the principle of equivalence between gravity and acceleration so Noether was laying the foundations for a general principle of equivalence which could be applied to many aspects of the physical world.

So why has she been largely forgotten? I suspect that it is was, and therefore still is, because she was a woman and, like Franklin, also a Jew, died early from cancer, although her equations are perhaps too dense and complicated for even a competant amateur. (If you do not believe me, take a look at this.) She also had the misfortune to be born into a society which still rigidly adhered to a notion of Kinder, Kirche und Küche (children, church and the kitchen) as the only places for which women were suited. The idea that a woman would have the intelligence to warrant a post as a professional mathematician in a University was anaethema to a male-dominated society of imperial Germany before the First World War.

Even after David Hilbert (yes, he of Hilbert Space and the twenty-three problems) sought her out and asked her to work with him, poor Emmy, as she was known, still could not get a salary or stipend, although she continued to work in the University (Göttingen) after Hilbert's retirement in 1930 at least until the Nazi's began their purge of all things and persons with even a trace of Jewishness about them in the universities in 1933. The Prussian Ministry for Arts, Science and Public Education told her in no uncertain terms that she was not welcome and banned her from teaching! She ended up in Bryn Mawr, a private women's college in the US; many intellectuals and scientists from Germany eventually landed posts at universities in the US, although she had also been offered a post at the University of Oxford in Somerville College, which at the time was also a women's-only college. Even during the thirties, women were still persona non grata in certain institutions, although Noether was a visiting lecturer at Princeton during the last year of her life; an institution that at the time was exclusively male!

Two years after her flight from Nazi Germany, she was dead from complications after an operation to remove an ovarian cyst; the size of a cantaloupe according to one source.

Of course things are so much different today, I hear you say. Undoubtedly, but I wonder if the Second World War, which forced women into the factories and onto the land, hadn't happened and the contraceptive pill, which freed women socially and sexually, hadn't been developed, would the situation now be much better than it was for Emmy Noether. Would women have been so eager to embrace the philosophies of Dworkin, Millet et al and demand equality if the Civil Rights Movement in the USA had not gained such prominence? Possibly; eventually the oppressed rise up, whatever the regime, whatever the penalties. Who knows? One day a female Pope?

I am indebted to Dave Goldberg's June 2014 blogged article derived from his book,  The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality for the above.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Martins, Lie-a-beds and the Northern Right Whale

I was reminded today of something that MG once told me. How the smallest, seemingly insigificant action on the part of  a human being can have a profound impact on the ecology of a small microcosm of the environment.

Many years ago (I won't tell you exactly how many, I don't want to embarrass the lad), MG's parents moved to a house in a slightly less built-up area of London sandwiched inbetween three quite sizable parks; all containing moderately large lakes. This started, amongst other things, an abiding passion for birds (of the feathered variety) and, later, a love of capturing what he saw around him in paint. Poor MG had been hithertoo restricted to seeing feral pigeons, starlings and house sparrows with only the occasional swift in the summer months. In that first year, he spotted greenfinches, chaffinches, goldfinches, dunnocks, fieldfares, redwings, nuthatches, kestrels, jays, magpies, spotted woodpeckers, blue titmice, great titmice and a few more besides.

One of his alleged highspots was watching from the kitchen window as house martins, summer visitors like the swifts, careered wildly at low level chasing flying insects across the small patch of grass which lay before the railway arches of a small viaduct which passed in between houses; the site of his house was, at one time, home to one of the holes that Hitler's Luftwaffe made whenever they got lost over London during the Blitz. It was not long before he located the nesting colony of some twenty nests tucked under the eaves and gutters of the large houses in a neighbouring street.

Every year, the martins would return and build their nests from mud gathered from the local parks under the eaves of the same houses each time. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason why particular houses in that particular street were chosen; it was all terribly random with often three nests in close proximity to each other and the next one fifty yards away.

Out walking with the dog one year, MG saw a single householder demolishing a newly built nest from under the gutter of his house and presumably just outside his bedroom window. One can perhaps understand this. People have a tendency to leave their windows open during the summer, even in the dismal British climate, and martin chicks can be quite raucous in their demand for food from the returning adults and, presumably, this householder had become sick of being woken up at 4:30am by the three or four screaming nestlings. Quite within his rights on his own property, I hear you say. And, to some extent, it is difficult to argue with that, although in the light of what happened subsequently I might make the attempt. 

Within a month, perhaps prompted by the solitary householder desperate to sleep late, every other householder in the road had demolished their own nests. It was too late for the parents to build another nest and the martins disappeared and presumably did not breed that year; they have not returned. Whether the small colony just upped and moved locations in the following year, MG cannot say but one thing was evident; if the colony had moved, it was far enough away for the martins never to be seen in the skies around his house or within a mile of it. Maybe the little colony survived, or at least the individuals did, to breed again and maybe they didn't. In the grand scheme of things, why does it matter?

Because the grand scheme of things is made of these tiny, insignificant acts by humans and what one person does inevitably leads to other following suit and so on. It doesn't take long for everything to spiral out of control and lead to disaster; just ask the Northern Right Whale!