Grete Hermann

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Grete Hermann
Grete Hermann.jpg
Grete Hermann
Born (1901-03-02)March 2, 1901
Died April 15, 1984(1984-04-15) (aged 83)
Nationality German
Education Göttingen under Emmy Noether; Ph.D. in 1926.
Occupation Mathematician and philosopher
Employer Assistant for Leonard Nelson; professor for philosophy and physics at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Bremen

Grete (Henry-)Hermann (March 2, 1901 – April 15, 1984) was a German mathematician and philosopher noted for her work in mathematics, physics, philosophy and education. She is noted for her early philosophical work on the foundations of quantum mechanics, and is now known most of all for an early, but long-ignored refutation of a no-hidden-variable theorem by John von Neumann. The disputed theorem and the fact that Hermann's critique of this theorem remained nearly unknown for decades are considered to have had a strong influence on the development of quantum mechanics.


Hermann studied mathematics at Göttingen under Emmy Noether, where she achieved her Ph.D. in 1926. Her doctoral thesis, "Die Frage der endlich vielen Schritte in der Theorie der Polynomideale" (in English "The Question of Finitely Many Steps in Polynomial Ideal Theory"), published in Mathematische Annalen, is the foundational paper for computer algebra. It first established the existence of algorithms (including complexity bounds) for many of the basic problems of abstract algebra, such as ideal membership for polynomial rings. Hermann's algorithm for primary decomposition is still in use now.

Assistant to Leonard Nelson[edit]

From 1925 to 1927, Hermann worked as assistant for Leonard Nelson[1][2] Together with Minna Specht, she posthumously published Nelson's work System der philosophischen Ethik und Pädagogik,[3] while continuing her own research.

Quantum mechanics[edit]

As a philosopher, Hermann had a particular interest in the foundations of physics. In 1934, she went to Leipzig "for the express purpose of reconciling a neo-Kantian conception of causality with the new quantum mechanics".[4] In Leipzig, many exchanges of thoughts took place among Hermann, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Werner Heisenberg.[4] The contents of her work in this time, including a focus on a distinction of predictability and causality, are known from three of her own publications,[5] and from later description of their discussions by von Weizsäcker,[6] and the discussion of Hermann's work in chapter ten of Heisenberg's The Part and The Whole. From Denmark, she published her work The foundations of quantum mechanics in the philosophy of nature (German original title: Die naturphilosophischen Grundlagen der Quantenmechanik). This work has been referred to as "one of the earliest and best philosophical treatments of the new quantum mechanics".[7] In this work, she concludes:

The theory of quantum mechanics forces us […] to drop the assumption of the absolute character of knowledge about nature, and to deal with the principle of causality independently of this assumption. Quantum mechanics has therefore not contradicted the law of causality at all, but has clarified it and has removed from it other principles which are not necessarily connected to it.

— Grete Hermann, The foundations of quantum mechanics in the philosophy of nature[8]

In 1935 Hermann published an argument demonstrating an apparent flaw in John von Neumann's 1932 proof which was widely claimed to show that a hidden variable theory of quantum mechanics was impossible. Hermann's result went unnoticed by the physics community until it was independently discovered and published by John Stewart Bell in 1966, and her earlier discovery was pointed out by Max Jammer in 1974. Some have posited that had her critique not remained nearly unknown for decades, the historical development of quantum mechanics may have been greatly affected; in particular, it has been speculated that a wider awareness of her work would have put in question the unequivocal acceptance of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, by providing a credible basis for the further development of nonlocal hidden variable theories.[5] In 2010, Jeffrey Bub published an argument that Bell (and, thus, also Hermann) had misconstrued von Neumann's proof, claiming that it does not attempt to prove the absolute impossibility of hidden variables, and that it is actually not flawed, after all.[9]

In June 1936 Hermann was awarded the Richard Avenarius prize together with Eduard May and Th. Vogel.[10][11]

Political activism[edit]

As Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Hermann participated in the underground movement against the Nazis. She was member of the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK).[12]

Emigration and later years[edit]

By 1936 Hermann left Germany for Denmark and later France and England.[12] In London, in order to avoid standing out on account of her German provenance, she married a man called Edward Henry early in 1938[13] Her prescience was justified by events: two years later the British government invoked its hitherto obscure Regulation 18B of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939, identifying several thousand refugees who had fled Germany for reasons of politics or race as enemy aliens and placing them in internment camps.[14]

After the war ended in 1945 she was able to combine her interests in physics and mathematics with political philosophy. She rejoined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on returning in 1946 to what would become, in 1949, the German Federal Republic (West Germany).[15] Starting in 1947 she was one of those contributing behind the scenes to Bad Godesberg Programmme, prepared under the leadership of her longstanding ISK comrade Willi Eichler, and issued in 1959, which provided a detailed modernising platform that carried the party into government in the 1960s.[15]

She was nominated professor for philosophy and physics at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Bremen and played a relevant role in the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft. From 1961 to 1978, she presided the Philosophisch-Politische Akademie, an organisation founded by Nelson in 1922, oriented towards education, social justice, responsible political action and its philosophical basis.[12][16]


  • Grete Hermann: Die naturphilosophischen Grundlagen der Quantenmechanik, Naturwissenschaften, Volume 23, Number 42, 718-721, doi:10.1007/BF01491142 (preview in German language)
  • Grete Hermann: Die Frage der endlich vielen Schritte in der Theorie der Polynomideale. Unter Benutzung nachgelassener Sätze von K. Hentzelt, Mathematische Annalen, Volume 95, Number 1, 736-788, doi:10.1007/BF01206635 (abstract in German language) — The question of finitely many steps in polynomial ideal theory (review and English-language translation)


  1. ^ C. L. Herzenberg: Grete Hermann: An early contributor to quantum theory, arXiv:0812.3986
  2. ^ Léna Soler: The Convergence of Transcendental Philosophy and Quantum Physics: Grete Henry-Hermann's 1935 Pioneering Proposal, Constituting Objectivity, The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science, 2009, Volume 74, II, Part 5, 329-344, doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-9510-8_20 (abstract)
  3. ^ Minna Specht, Philosophisch-Politische Akademie (in German language), doanloaded January 22, 2012
  4. ^ a b Guido Bacciagaluppi, Elise Crull: Heisenberg (and Schrödinger, and Pauli) on hidden variables, On The History Of The Quantum — The HQ2 Special Issue, Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies In History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, vol. 40, no. 4, December 2009, pp. 374–382, 2009, doi:10.1016/j.shpsb.2009.08.004 (abstract), p. 10
  5. ^ a b see Michel Bitbol, Pierre Kerszberg, Jean Petitot: Constituting Objectivity: Transcendental Perspectives on Modern Physics, Springer, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4020-9509-2, p. 331 ff.
  6. ^ Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, see for example: Jagdish Mehra, Helmut Rechenberg: The Historical Development of Quantum Theory, Volume 6 The Completion of Quantum Mechanics 1926–1941, Part 2, Springer, 2001, ISBN 0-387-95086-9, p. 712 f.
  7. ^ Elise Crull, Guido Bacciagaluppi: Translation of: W. Heisenberg, "Ist eine deterministische Ergänzung der Quantenmechanik möglich?", preprint of May 2, 2011 (to be included in a planned book for CUP with the title "The Einstein Paradox": The debate on nonlocality and incompleteness in 1935), PhilSci archive (abstract, fulltext), footnote 5, p. 3
  8. ^ Grete Hermann: The foundations of quantum mechanics in the philosophy of nature. Cited after its translation from German with an introduction by Dirk Lumma in: The Harvard Review of Philosophy VII 1999, p. 35 ff.
  9. ^ Bub, Jeffrey (2010). "Von Neumann's 'No Hidden Variables' Proof: A Re-Appraisal". Foundations of Physics 40 (9-10): 1333–1340. doi:10.1007/s10701-010-9480-9. 
  10. ^ C. F. Freiherr v. Weizsäcker (interviewed), Konrad Lindner: Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker über sein Studium in Leipzig, NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 3-18, doi:10.1007/BF02914089, see fulltext
  11. ^ V. F. Lenzen: Die Bedeutung der Modernen Physik für die Theorie der Erkenntnis. Drei mit dem Richard Avenarius-Preis ausgezeichnete Arbeiten von Dr. Grete Hermann, Dr. E. May, Dr. Th. Vogel, In A. P. Ushenko (ed.): The Philosophy of Relativity, Science, vol. 85, no. 2217 (Jun. 25, 1937), pp. 606-607
  12. ^ a b c Grete Henry-Hermann, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, downloaded January 22, 2012
  13. ^ "Marriage registry index (Marylebone)". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 15 February 2016. 
  14. ^ Patricia Shipley; who is "grateful to Fernando Leal, Rene Saran, and Dieter Krohn for their helpful comments in the preparation of this account" (20 November 2012). "Grete Henry - Hermann (1901-1984) (A personal account for the trustees of the SFCP)". 
  15. ^ a b Andrea Abele; Helmut Neunzert; Renate Tobies (2004). Berufswege promovierter Mathematikerinnen und Mathematiker. Traumjob Mathematik!: Berufswege von Frauen und Männern in der Mathematik (Springer Basel AG). pp. 110–111. ISBN 978-3-7643-6749-7. 
  16. ^ Philosophisch-Politische Akademie (in German language), downloaded January 22, 2012

Further reading[edit]

  • C. Herzensberg: Grete Hermann: Mathematician, Physicist, Philosopher, Bulletin of the American Physical Society, 2008 APS April Meeting and HEDP/HEDLA Meeting, Volume 53, Number 5, April 11–15, 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri (abstract)
  • Vera Venz: Zur Biografie von Grete Hermann, GRIN 2009, First edition 2001, ISBN 978-3640411924 (in German language)

External links[edit]