Edward Frenkel can’t make you love math, but he’s sure going to try. His new book, “Love & Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality” (Basic Books, 2013) is the latest example of his efforts to make the beauty and wonder of modern mathematics accessible to anyone.
Part autobiography, part math tutorial, “Love & Math” recounts Frenkel’s personal journey from being denied admission to Moscow State University because of anti-Semitic policies to becoming a successful, young math professor at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Among the chapters about his unfolding life, Frenkel intersperses engaging explications of the mathematical concepts that led him to his work on the Langlands Program, considered to be a Grand Unified Theory of mathematics that enables researchers to translate findings from one field of mathematics to another, and to connect mathematics to quantum physics.
But this is probably the only book you’ve seen use a borscht recipe to try to teach you quantum duality.
All it takes is one look at Frenkel to see that he is trying not only to break stereotypes about mathematics, but also about mathematicians. This 45-year-old professor wears a stylish haircut and expensive jeans, not nerdy glasses and a pocket protector.
He’s surely the first mathematician to appear nude on film, as he does in a silent short movie he co-directed and starred in. It’s called “Rites of Love and Math,” and it pays homage to “Rites of Love and Death,” a cult classic by Japanese author and director Yukio Mishima. In the allegorical film, Frenkel plays a mathematician who discovers the mathematical formula for love. Fearing that it will be stolen and used for harmful purposes, he realizes he must die — but not before tattooing the formula on his lover’s body.
The Times of Israel spoke with Frenkel about how Soviet anti-Semitism almost crushed his dream of becoming a mathematician, his views on math education, and taking his clothes off in front of the camera.
A key chapter in your book — and in your life — is about your being unfairly denied admission to the mathematics department at Moscow State University because of anti-Semitic policies. How has this informed your Jewish identity?
My family was not religious. My mother is Russian and my father is Jewish, so I am neither by the standard definitions. You’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish, and you’re Russian if your father is Russian. But in my case it’s switched, so technically I’m neither. But then again according to the admissions committee of Moscow University, I’m Jewish.
It’s interesting how anti-Semitism makes you aware of your identity. First, I was mocked by my classmates. Then there was the experience at the entrance exam, where I was essentially blocked from pursuing my dream. That was a big shock. That was one of the things that prompted me to explore my identity more. From that point on, I became much more aware.
I have been to Israel for conferences and to visit with friends. I have been interested in exploring Judaism and Jewish culture. I don’t define my Jewish identity as just through the negative experience, because it prompted me to have some positive experiences as well.
What do you think is the biggest mistake being made in math education today?
The biggest mistake is that mathematics is the most misunderstood subject. No one tells students what mathematics is really about. Often, no one tells the teachers… I try to demonstrate that one doesn’t have to be a professional, or to study for years, to appreciate the power and beauty of these ideas.
For example, if you look at other sciences like physics or biology, there are concepts in those subjects that are quite complicated, be it quantum theory, Einstein’s relativity theory or DNA. To fully understand these concepts, one really needs to study, but these concepts are in our cultural discourse. They are presented in popular literature and in the media, and no one is surprised that most of us have a rudimentary idea of what these things are. But if you say “Langlands Program,” most people would just draw blank faces.
Fundamental concepts like fractions are being introduced to kids so poorly. It’s no wonder they are flabbergasted. They don’t get it. Fractions, of course, are the basis for algebra and everything that comes later in mathematics. So if students don’t master the basic concept, then how can you talk about beautiful ideas?
You have to find the right way to teach the kids and make them realize how important this stuff is, how it’s connected to reality. You need to give them a glimpse, a feeling, of how mathematics is this big, beautiful subject about uncovering the mysteries of the world.
How can this change happen?
It’s not going to happen overnight. This is going to be a winding road, but I think we have to decide to do it. I and other mathematicians are realizing how important it is for us to speak with the public about our subject. I see my book as one of these first steps in raising this awareness. Professional mathematicians must be more involved in communicating with the public, and in the educational system.
You are committed to this effort, but what about your colleagues?
Very few of my colleagues are involved in this. It’s terrible. Most just have their heads buried in the sand… But no one else can do this. We are going to have a worse and worse vicious cycle. The students of today are the teachers of tomorrow, so we have to wake up and get involved.
Given the huge loan debt burden carried by so many American university graduates, how can you encourage your students to pursue careers in pure mathematics?
One has to set lofty goals, and then of course reality will correct them
I recount my story. It looked like I had no future, and I was in a much worse situation… But I did mathematics anyways and it worked out. I couldn’t have imagined at that time that just five years after I was failed on my entrance exams because of anti-Semitism, I would be invited to Harvard, come to the US and actually get a job doing what I love. So I always tell my students: Follow your heart. If you lower the bar from the beginning… then I think that’s not the right approach. One has to set lofty goals, and then of course reality will correct them.
You windsurf and are into electronic dance music, even spending your vacations clubbing in Ibiza. It seems that you are trying to break stereotypes about mathematicians.
Stereotypes are so deeply entrenched in our collective consciousness. Think about it — when did you last see a movie in which a mathematician is a cool guy? “A Beautiful Mind” and “Proof” are good movies, but they present a mathematician only as a certain type… What if a kid will see a mathematician who is different? Maybe they will then decide that this subject is for them. Maybe the stereotype will be diminished and more young people will see that mathematics is a cool subject, a sexy subject. One can have a fulfilling life and be a mathematician. There’s no contradiction.
Speaking of sexy, are you at all concerned that you might have gone too far by appearing naked in the love scene in “Rites of Love and Math”?
The idea of the film was to do something radically different, to communicate that a mathematical formula can be beautiful like a painting or a poem, and that it could carry the charge of love just like a poem. Once we decided to use [Yukio Mishima’s] aesthetic framework, there was no turning back.
I did not shoot that scene because we wanted me to appear naked in the movie, but because we were following in Mishima’s footsteps. We weren’t going to let ourselves be stopped by norms and conventions that say that a mathematician cannot appear nude on film.
How have your students reacted to seeing you in the film?
They haven’t told me anything. I never bring up my film when I teach. I never bring it in to the classroom or direct my students to it. I have a specific relationship with my students, and I have separate relationship with the world as a spokesman for math.
I think my students at Berkeley are mature enough to understand the meaning of our film. They have seen plenty of nudity and sex in Hollywood films, so that’s nothing new to them by itself. I believe that in our film the love scene is organic to our story, and is presented in a sensual and artistic way.
Your story has a happy ending, but what happened to your classmates back in the USSR?
The reason I had a happy ending was because I was lucky to find the generosity of some individuals. They wanted to help because they knew what the situation was. I was lucky that I found them, or they found me. Others, my classmates, were not so lucky. They could not find somebody to guide and help them. Their dream was shattered. They could not become mathematicians. Some of them had serious psychological problems because of this.
The chapter about how you were deliberately failed on the entrance exam was published last fall in The New Criterion. A Russian translation appeared on a popular Russian website, generating many anti-Semitic comments. What is your reaction to this?
People accused me of lying. They said this never happened. Then they suggested that it was the right thing to fail Jews so that they would go to Israel.
It is heartening that the Russian government, as far as I know, is not pursuing anti-Semitic policies these days. But if you want to talk about anti-Semitism on a personal level, that’s a different story. Unfortunately it’s still there. Those comments are self-revealing.
I’m not trying to settle scores. I am just trying to tell what happened to me and many other Jewish students. Please don’t tell me this didn’t happen, and don’t tell me 20 years from now that discrimination didn’t happen in today’s Russia, because it is happening. Recent Soviet and Russian history is littered with the hatred of minorities, be it the Chechens, the Jews, or the Tatars. Now it’s gay people. This should give people pause. We have to draw lessons from the past.