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 is the sixth of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest 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).

Born into a Jewish family in rural Germany in 1882, the daughter of a mathematician, Emmy Noether showed an early and exquisite gift for mathematics: this abstract plaything of thought, this deepest language of reality. 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.”

For seven years, while Einstein was working out his theories, Noether was working without pay as a mathematics instructor at the local university. 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. Considered one of the most important and beautiful in all of mathematics, it proves that conservation laws rely on symmetry.

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. Of the 420 participating mathematicians, Emmy Noether was the only woman. 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. The position she had spent half a century and a lifetime earning was vanquished overnight.

Einstein sought refuge in Princeton — that epicenter of physicists and mathematicians of his and her caliber. But Princeton had no room for a her. Emmy Noether ended up at Bryn Mawr. Although she was invited as a guest lecturer on the request of the working scientists at Princeton, whose field would have been unimaginable without her contribution, the university overlords made her feel unambiguously unwelcome. 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.”

Symmetry now permeates our understanding of the universe and 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. What she gave us is not unlike poetry, which gives us a new way of comprehending what is already there but not yet noticed and not yet named. With her elegant, deeply original mathematics, which came to underpin the entire standard model of particle physics, Emmy Noether became the poet laureate or reality.

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 died on April 14, 1935, after complications from a seemingly banal ovarian surgery. She had just turned 53.

Two weeks later, crowds gathered for a memorial at Bryn Mawr, where the great German mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Hermann Weyl delivered the memorial address. 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 Snow and now lives on in her exquisite 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):

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what 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 are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

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.

Previously in the series: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers); Chapter 4 (dark matter and the mystery of our mortal stardust, with Patti Smith and Rebecca Elson); Chapter 5 (a singularity-ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, starring Toshi Reagon and Marissa Davis).

donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.