Dirge Without Music: Emmy Noether, Symmetry, and the Conservation of Energy (Amanda Palmer Reads Edna St. Vincent Millay, Animated by Sophie Blackall)

“Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you. Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.”

This sixth installment is part of the animated interlude season produced by The Universe in Verse in collaboration With On Being. It celebrates the beauty of reality with stories that combine science and poetry. The rest of the series can be found here.


As he was revolutionizing our understanding of reality, Albert Einstein kept stumbling over one monolith of mystery — why is it that while some things in physical systems change (and relativity is a theory of change: of how changes in coordinates give shape to spacetime), nature keeps other things immutable: things like energy, momentum, and electrical charge. And the crucial the puzzle: Why we cannot destroy energy or create it out of nothing — we can only transform it from one form to another in ever-morphing symmetries.

The revelation, which made Einstein’s general relativity possible, came from the mathematics of Emmy Noether (March 23, 1882–April 14, 1935).

Emmy Noether, the child of a mathematician and a Jewish couple in Germany’s rural countryside, was born to an immigrant family. She excelled through all the education available to her, completing her doctorate in 1907 as one of two women in a class of nearly a thousand, shortly after the government had declared that mixed-sex education would “overthrow all academic order.”

While Einstein worked out his theories for seven years, Noether taught mathematics at the university without any pay. In 1915 — the year Einstein’s general relativity reframed our picture of reality — she finally received proper employment at the country’s premier research institution. At Göttingen University, where three centuries of visionary scientists have honed their science and earned their Nobels, Emmy Noether developed the famous theorem now bearing her name. It is considered one of the greatest and most beautiful mathematical works.

A generation after the women decoding the universe for paltry pay at the Harvard College Observatory under the directorship of Edward Charles Pickering became known as “Pickering’s Harem,” Emmy Noether’s mathematics students became known as the “Noether boys.”

In 1932, she became the first woman to give the plenary address at the International Congress of Mathematicians — the world’s most venerable gathering of brilliant abstract minds. Emmy Noether was one of 420 participants in the International Congress of Mathematicians. Another woman would not address the Congress until 1990 — the year the Hubble Space Telescope leaned on her physics to open its colossal eye into an unseen cosmos “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.” As of this moment in 2022, there has not been a third.

Months after Emmy Noether’s address, the Nazis banished Jewish professors from German universities. She was evicted from the job she worked half a century for and had earned her entire life.

Einstein sought refuge in Princeton — that epicenter of physicists and mathematicians of his and her caliber. Princeton was too small to accommodate Einstein. Here. Emmy Noether ended her career at Bryn Mawr. While she was asked to lecture at Princeton by working scientists, her field wouldn’t have been possible without her contributions, her university bosses felt that Emmy wasn’t welcome. Even this cheerful and uncomplaining woman, too in love with the abstract beauty of mathematics to have been thwarted by the systemic exclusion of the body carrying the mind, rued that it was “the men’s university, where nothing female is admitted.”

Now, symmetry permeates both our knowledge of the universe as well as the language of Physics. It is nigh impossible to publish any paper — that is, to formulate any meaningful model of reality — without referring to symmetry in some way. This was Emmy Noether’s gift to the world — a whole new way of seeing and a whole new vocabulary for naming what we see, which is the fundament of fathoming and sensemaking. The gift she provided us was similar to poetry. Poetry gives us new ways of understanding what is already present but has not been noticed or named yet. Emmy Noether was the poet laureate of reality thanks to her original and elegant mathematics.

And yet, having devoted her life’s work to demystifying the conservation of energy, she too submitted to the dissipation awaiting us all — each of us a temporary constellation of particles assembled for a pinch in spacetime, an assemblage that has never before been and will never again will be, no matter the greatness and glory attained in the brief interlude of being succumbing to the ultimate mystery.

Emmy Noether passed away on April 14, 1935 after complications following a seemingly simple ovarian procedure. Elle was just 53.

A memorial service was held at Bryn Mawr two weeks later. It featured the address of Hermann Weyl, the German philosopher, mathematician and physicist. He opened it with a verse from “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950) — another woman ahead of her epoch in many ways, who frequently reverenced science in her poems about the rapture of reality.

Inspired by one of Millay’s most passionate loves — a young woman named Dorothy Coleman, who had died in the 1918 flu pandemic — the elegy was published a decade later in her collection The Buck in the SnowShe lives on today in her beautiful Collected Poems (public Library).

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1920s

In this special installment in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse, in memory of another irreplaceable constellation of atoms (without whom the modern landscape of scientific thought would not be what it is), I asked my darling friend and longtime collaborator in the poetic endeavors Amanda Palmer to bring Millay’s poem to life in a characteristically soulful reading, then invited another beloved friend — the prolific and Caldecott-decorated children’s book author and artist Sophie Blackall (who happens to be the maker of Amanda’s son’s favorite book) to animate it (in both senses of the word) with her characteristically soulful art, scored with a soulful original composition by English musician Tom McRae (who happens to be Sophie’s cousin):

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I’m not ready to let go of the loving arms and love that are there in the difficult places.
It is as it should be.
The wise and the beautiful go to the dark. Crowned
They are with lilies or with laurel, but they do not leave me.

Lovers and thinkers: Come into the Earth with us.
Do not be afraid to mix with the indiscreet dust.
A little bit of what your emotions were, and what you thought you knew.
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They’re gone. They’re gone. They are elegant and curled
It is the bloom. It is fragrant. Yes, I do. But I do not approve.
You were more valuable than all the roses around the globe because of the light you see.

It’s all down and down until the darkness of death.
They move gently, they move, the pretty, the tender and the kind.
They go quietly, they move, the wise, the clever, and the brave.
Yes, I do. But I do not approve. But I’m not done.

Previous chapters in this series: Chapters 1 and 2 (the origin of life, the birth of ecology) with Joan As Police Woman, Emily Dickinson, and Chapter 3. Chapter 3 (trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell, the poetics of the cosmic perspective), with David Byrne, Pattiann Rogers, Chapter 4, (dark matter, the mystery of our mortal starst), with Rebecca Elson and Patti Smith. Chapter 5 (a singularity, an ode to the primval connection we have with each other, featuring Marissa Davis and Toshi Reagon.

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