Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Contemporary Memoirs of Mathematical Passion

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Contemporary Memoirs of Mathematical Passion

Article excerpt

Recent memoirs by mathematicians Edward Frenkel, Michael Harris, and Cedric Villani emphasize the role of emotion in their lives and culture. This essay argues that the authors advance a vision of a just, inclusive, and creative mathematical community both sustained and transformed by socially aware mathematical passion.

Mathematician Edward Frenkel appears in a 2014 episode of The Colbert Report to promote his memoir Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which describes his journey from a mathematics student struggling against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union to a successful professor in the United States. Introducing Frenkel, host Stephen Colbert playfully performs the spectacle of mathematical incomprehension: "You need no introduction, obviously, but I will do it anyway. You are a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. I don't have to tell people here that you actually worked on the free-field realizations of affine Kac-Moody algebras." Applause erupts from the audience. Colbert lists a few of Frenkel's other research accomplishments before asking about the memoir: "What the hell does love have to do with math? Because, spoiler alert, I hated math." Frenkel compares mathematics to art and explains that education fails to communicate the wonders of the subject; he offers the analogy of "an art class in which they teach you only how to paint a fence or a wall but never show you the paintings of the great masters." Conversation soon turns to Rites of Love and Math, a short film co-directed by and co-starring Frenkel. Colbert says, "You're not only someone who writes passionately. You actually have performed passionately." He is referring to the fact that in the film, which Frenkel envisions as an allegory (Love 232), his character, the Mathematician, has a nude sex scene before tattooing the "Formula of Love" on his lover's body to keep it safe from the "forces of Evil" (Rites). Frenkel deadpans, "What wouldn't I do to expose the beauty of mathematics?" He also offers an earnest explanation of how, for mathematicians, doing mathematics is a love affair. In the conclusion of the interview Colbert muses on the gluteal definition of Frenkel, whom fellow mathematician Michael Harris calls a mathematical "sex symbol" (142).

Although Frenkel's work in communicating with the general public about mathematics through erotic cinema is unique, two other mathematicians I will discuss have recently published memoirs that also explore the passion driving their research. One of those books is Cedric Villani's Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure (originally Theoreme vivant). It chronicles the emotional highs and lows of the collaborative research culminating in his 2008 receipt of the Fields Medal, (1) arguably the highest honour in mathematics, "for his proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation" (231, emph. Villani's). The relationship at the centre of Birth of a Theorem is the collaboration between Villani and his former student Clement Mouhot. Like Frenkel, Villani has also attracted media attention, in his case as la Lady Gaga des mathematiques ("the Lady Gaga of Mathematics") (Delesalle), a reputation related to his unconventional wardrobe, often a lavalliere and a spider brooch. Similarly, Villani has engaged the public through media appearances, in his case in both French and English: in TEDx Talks, on French television, and in the film Comment j'ai deteste les maths (the English title is How I Came to Hate Math).

The other book, part-memoir and part-ethnographic musing on the culture of mathematicians, is Harris's Mathematics without Apologies. Harris describes its general organizing principle: "Rather than rely on apologies, this book pieces together fragments found in libraries, in the arts, in popular culture, and in the media, to create a composite portrait of the mathematical vocation. The sequence of chapters very roughly follows the trajectory from the vocation's awakening, through struggles with various kinds of temptation, to its consolidation, followed by a conclusion consisting of inconclusive reflections on what we know when we 'know why' and what it all means. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.