My Dance is Mathematics

JoAnne Growney

More about this poem


Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

--- From "Dirge without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay; offered by Hermann Weyl in a Memorial Address for Amalie Emmy Noether on April 26, 1935 at Bryn Mawr College.

They called you der Noether, as if mathematics
was for only men.  In 1964, nearly thirty years
past your death, at last I saw you in a spotlight,
in a New York World's Fair mural
entitled "Men of Modern Mathematics."

Colleagues praised your brilliance, after they had said
that you were fat and plain and rough and loud.
Some mentioned your kindness and good humor,
but only in the end admitted your key role
in creation of axiomatic algebra.

With laughter a tale is told from 1890,
when you were eight years old.  At a birthday party,
you spoke up to solve a hard math puzzle.
That day you set yourself apart to be
someone that I would follow.

As I followed you, I saw you have to choose
between mathematics and other romance.
Though men could embrace both,
for you, the different standard.

I heard fathers say, dance with Emmy.  Do it early
in the evening, and she won't expect you
to stay with her.  Max is kind and a good friend,
and his daughter likes to dance.

If a woman's dance is mathematics,
must she dance alone?

I heard mothers say, don't tease.
Although Emmy's strange, her heart is kind.
She helps her mother clean the house,
and she can't help having a mathematical mind.

Teachers said, she's smart
but rather stubborn, contentious and loud,
and abstract thinker not like us,
and not conditioned to favor our ideas.

Students said, she's hard
to follow, bores me.  A few in front row seats
saw her shape a vital research program-
they built while standing on her shoulders.

Emmy Noether's abstract axiomatic view
altered the face of algebra.
She helped us think in simple terms
that flowered in their generality.

In spite of Emmy's capabilities,
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.
She doesn't think as we do.

History books now say that Noether
is the greatest mathematician
that her sex has produced. They say
that-for a woman-she was very good.

Direct and courageous,
lacking self-concern,
elegant of mind,
nurturing and kind,
a moral solace
in an evil time,
a poet of logical ideas.

If a woman's dance is mathematics,
must she dance alone?

Honor Emmy Noether.
Invite a mathematician to dance.


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