Math wiz breaks with nerd stereo­type

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

IF you think that you hate math, Rus­sian-born math­e­ma­ti­cian Ed­ward Frenkel is con­fi­dent that you are mis­taken. Your prob­lem, as he states in the pref­ace to this eru­dite work aimed at the in­tel­li­gent layper­son, is that you have never even been ex­posed to real math­e­mat­ics.

As he writes: “What if at school you had to take an ‘art class’ in which you were only taught how to paint a fence?”

Frenkel, who now teaches at Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, knows the high­est lev­els of math­e­mat­ics from the in­side. In 1989, he be­came the first re­cip­i­ent of a Har­vard Prize Fel­low­ship. By 2003, he was spear­head­ing a mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar project in pure math­e­mat­ics un­der DARPA, the Amer­i­can de­fence think-tank that cre­ated the In­ter­net.

Frenkel breaks with the math-nerd stereo­type at ev­ery step. The cover of Love & Math is a van Gogh paint­ing. In­side, the book is rich with quo­ta­tions from po­ets and nov­el­ists.

At one point he re­pro­duces Mar­cel Duchamp’s 1912 paint­ing Nude De­scend­ing a Stair­case, No. 2 and doc­u­ments its link to Einstein’s work.

Love & Math in­ter­weaves Frenkel’s per­sonal story with his re­search. He is known for his work on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of al­ge­bras rel­e­vant to quan­tum the­ory, in­clud­ing the Fei­gin-Frenkel iso­mor­phism.

As a stu­dent, he was si­mul­ta­ne­ously trained and re­jected by the Soviet sys­tem. He re­counts scal­ing fences with a friend to break into sem­i­nars at Moscow State Univer­sity. The elite school had ex­cluded them through rigged en­trance ex­ams.

Along­side his per­sonal strug­gles anda suc­cesses, he tells the story of hish par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Lang­lands Pro­gram — math­e­mat­ics cru­cial to string the­ory, physics and the pre­dic­tion of the Higgs bo­son or “God par­ti­cle.”

At 45, Frankel is an elite math­e­ma­ti­cian. At the same time, he is an anti-elite math­e­ma­ti­cian. In his view,v “(w)e should all have ac­cess to the math­e­mat­i­cal knowl­edge and tools needed to pro­tect us from ar­bi­trary de­ci­sions made by the pow­er­ful few in an in­creas­ingly math-driven world.”

Not­with­stand­ing the preachy tone of this pro­nounce­ment, Frenkel’s mo­ti­va­tion in shar­ing math­e­mat­ics is any­thing but prosy. He is def­i­nitely in love with the sub­ject.

In fact, in 2010 he wrote and starred in the erotic short film Rites of Love and Math. In the key scene, which took many hours to shoot, his char­ac­ter tat­toos a for­mula from Frenkel’s re­search onto the belly of Mariko, his lover. “(T) he for­mula is an ex­pres­sion of his love. It can carry the same pas­sion and emo­tional charge as a poem.”

At times, Frenkel is a lit­tle naïve re­gard­ing how much math­e­mat­ics read­ers can tol­er­ate. He does strive to be ap­proach­able: “Think of the ra­tional num­bers as a cup of tea,” he writes.

“We can drink it by it­self, but our ex­pe­ri­ence will be en­hanced if we mix in su­gar, milk, honey, var­i­ous spices — and th­ese are like the num­bers square root of 2, square root of 3, etc.”

An ed­i­tor fa­mously warned Stephen Hawk­ing that for ev­ery equa­tion in A Brief His­tory of Time, his read­er­ship would be cut in half. Frenkel braves the most de­tailed de­scrip­tion of math­e­mat­i­cal ideas that one might see in a pop­u­lar book. At one point he re­marks: “All this stuff, as my dad put it, is quite heavy; we’ve got Hitchin mo­duli spa­ces, mir­ror sym­me­try, A-branes, B-branes, au­to­mor­phic sheaves.... One can get a headache just try­ing to keep track of all of them.”

For a tiny sliver of read­er­ship born with high-level math­e­mat­i­cal tal­ent, this book could pro­vide a life-chang­ing in­spi­ra­tion. How­ever, any in­tel­li­gent reader will be re­warded. Frenkel raises the cur­tain on life as a math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius, and shows it to be one filled with vi­brant emo­tional colour.

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