Category Archives: History

Happy Birthday to Emmy Noether

As you may have seen on Google’s page, this March 23rd marks what would have been Emmy Noether’s 133rd birthday. If you hadn’t heard of Emmy Noether before, you’re not alone (I hadn’t either); it just goes to show how easy it is for scientists to be lost to time even when their discoveries aren’t. So let’s take a look at Emmy Noether’s contributions to science/math.

Emmy Noether was born in Germany on March 23rd, 1882. As a child, she was not noted for being academically gifted, although family friends remarked on her talent for solving logic puzzles. She studied at the University of Erlangen, which, in addition to only having 2 female students out of almost a 1000 total, only allowed her to audit classes. In spite of this, Dr. Noether would eventually successful complete a dissertation in mathematics in 1907. After being introduced to the work of David Hilbert, she began her first forays into abstract algebra. David Hilbert went on to get her a teaching position at his university, although the school would not pay her and only referred to her as his assistant. She eventually received recognition of her status of a professor, along with a small salary. Unfortunately, as in too many histories of German scientists, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany came with the expulsion of Jewish professors from their posts. Although Dr. Noether continued to meet with students to discuss mathematics, she eventually left Germany for a paid position at Bryn Mawr College, where she worked until her death in 1935.

Much as it pains me to admit, I cannot hope to properly explain Emmy Noether’s contributions to the field of abstract algebra, particularly non-commutative algebra (where the commutative property no longer applies). Suffice to say, her contributions to mathematics and theoretical physics helped theoretical mathematics to become a field of study, and are still being used today. So happy 133rd birthday to Dr. Noether!

A few good days for computing and astronomy

Happy birthday on the 9th, 10th, and 11th of December to Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, and Annie Jump Cannon, respectively!

Grace Hopper: Born December 9, 1906 in New York City, Grace Hopper was said to always be curious. At the age of seven, after deciding to figure out how alarm clocks worked, she systematically dismantled seven alarm clocks in her house before her mother caught on. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in mathematics and physics before gaining her Ph. D. in mathematics from Yale in 1930. She taught mathematics at Vassar College until 1943, when she joined the US Navy Reserve WAVES program. Assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project in 1944 under Howard Aiken, she would co-author three papers on the developing Mark I computer over the next 5 years. In 1949, she began working on the UNIVAC I. During this project she also produced one of the first working compiler, the A compiler, in 1952. Although initially no one believed her, by 1954 she was appointed the first director of automatic programming.

In 1959, Hopper became the technical assistant in charge of developing the COBOL programming language, one of the first to use English-based code and be machine-independent. COBOL is still in use today. During the 70s, Hopper pushed for the creation of standards to test computer systems, components, and programming languages. These Navy standards led to significant convergence of programming languages used in computers and in the 80s were officially acquired by the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology. By her retirement in 1966, Hopper had been promoted to a Naval Reserve Commander, eventually achieving the rank of commodore by special Presidential Appointment. Over her life, she was made to retire from the Naval Reserve three times, although that never stopped her from continuing her work. Perhaps the best accomplishment of Rear Admiral Hopper, even according to her, was her commitment to training young people. Grace Hopper died in 1992.


Ada Lovelace: Born on December 10, 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, she was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Byron separated from his family soon after Ada was born. Her mother, Anne Byron (who by some accounts was also an intelligent mathematician) encouraged her daughter to study mathematics and logic in part to curb the insane romaticism she worried Ada had inherited from her father. This talent for mathematics led her to a friendship with Charles Babbage, and their working relationship led to Ada Lovelace collaborating on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. In 1842 and 1843, her work with Luigi Menabrea’s article on analytical engines culminated in what many consider the first computer program. While Babbage focused on the number-crunching capabilities of his engine, Ada Lovelace suggested that these machines could go much further into other fields of science. Ada Lovelace died at age 36 from uterine cancer. Possibly more so than any other scientist discussed thus far, I encourage everyone to read more about Lovelace’s work, and the controversy that still surrounds her contributions to science. Or, for something lighter, you could check out Kate Beaton’s Hark A Vagrant comic on Ada Lovelace, available online.


Annie Jump Cannon: As you may see in the Google Doodle, December 11 marks Annie Jump Cannon’s 151st birthday. Born in Dover, DE to a Delaware state senator, Cannon was taught about the stars from an early age by her mother. In 1884 she graduate from Wellesley College with physics and astronomy degrees. After two additional years studying solely astronomy at Radcliffe College, she was hired as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory in 1896. Hired to be one of “Pickering’s Women” (named after then observatory head E.C. Pickering) she work to empirically classify stars in the southern hemisphere. Her star classification system was created from two already known models into the now-universal O, B, A, F, G, K, M system. Between 1881 and 1924, Cannon classified more than 225,000 stars. In 1911, when she became curator of astronomical photographs, it was said she could classify as many as three stars a minute. In 1925, she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. She was given the Henry Draper Gold Metal by the National Academy of Sciences, and was the first female officer of the American Astronomical Society. Cannon retired in 1940, and died a year later, still living in Cambridge, MA.

Happy 100th Birthday to Hedy Lamarr

November 9th would have been Hedy Lamarr’s 100th birthday. If you weren’t aware, in addition to her acting career, Lamarr also helped invent frequency-hopping spread-spectrum signalling to prevent frequency jams of communications between submarines and torpedoes.

Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914. Her first husband, a munitions manufacturer, would take her to business lectures, where she learned the applied science of weapons and communications technology. After moving to the US and becoming an actress, Lamarr met George Antheil, an avant garde composer. During WWII, the two developed frequency hopping as a method of preventing communication jams by opposing forces. A piano roll, based on the 88 keys of a piano, was used to seemingly randomly jump the frequency of a message. Only the sender and receiver, who knew the sequence of hops in advance, could translate the message. Opposing forces couldn’t just attempt to jam every signal either, since there were too many possible hops.

Although the patent was filed in 1942, the US armed forces did not use the technology until 1962, after the patent expired. Nowadays, we can see the evolution of the Lamarr-Antheil invention in bluetooth devices and some types of wireless internet routers, which use communication technology based on Lamarr’s ideas. So if you ever you ever watch one of her movies on Netflix, remember that she helped to get that film to your computer in more ways than one.

Article written by R. Eaton. Information sourced from Wikipedia.

Female Scientist Birthday Announcements: Radiation Edition

Happy birthday to Lise Meitner (136) and Marie Curie (147)!

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878. She obtained her doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna in 1905 (she had to attend a private institution, since public institutes did not admit women at the time). In 1909, she began research with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm institute, and by 1926 she was a full professor at the University of Berlin. It was while working with Hahn that she and another scientist first articulate the theory of nuclear fission to explain how uranium would break apart into smaller elements after being bombarded with neutrons. In 1938, she fled from Nazi Germany into Sweden, eventually taking a position at the University of Stockholm. She worked in Sweden until 1960, when she retired to the United Kingdom. Lise Meitner died in 1968.

Marie Curie was born in Poland in 1867. When Russia outlawed lab instruction in schools, Marie’s father, a teacher, brought home lab equipment for his children to learn with. From a family that had become destitute after supporting Polish independence, Marie worked as a tutor and governess for many years before saving enough money to join her sister in Paris. There, she attended the University of Paris, where she gained two degrees in physics and chemistry, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. In 1894 she also began working with Pierre Curie, whom she would eventually marry.Her work with uranium lead her to the discovery of radium and polonium; she also coined the term radioactivity.In 1906 he became the first female professor at the University of Paris, following the death of her husband. In 1903, she and her husband won the Nobel Prize in Physics; her second Nobel Prize, this one for Chemistry, was awarded in 1911. Sadly, after years of exposure to radiation, she died in 1934 of aplastic anemia. Although Dr. Curie never acknowledged the potential health risks of radiation, her papers are now considered too radioactive to handle without protection.

Though both these women were pioneers in radiation chemistry and nuclear physics, only one (Curie) was ever honored by the Nobel committee. Meitner was later honored when element 109 (meitnerium) was named after her. Both of these women had long and fascinated careers that I’ve barely scratched the surface of, and I encourage everyone to read up on them today.

Want to see your favorite female pioneering scientist acknowledged? Give me her name and birthday in the comments, and we’ll make it happen!

This post written by R. Eaton. Information sourced from Wikipedia.