Date: Aug 25, 2013 5:58 PM Author: Jerry P. Becker Subject: Edward Frenkel and a Love for Math ****************************

From The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, August

24, 2013. See

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324165204579026930747839174.html

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Edward Frenkel and a Love for Math

By Alexandra Wolfe

The words love and math aren't usually uttered in

the same breath. But mathematician Edward Frenkel

is on a mission to change that, uniting the terms

in both his recent film, "The Rites of Love and

Math," and upcoming book, "Love and Math." Both

are attempts to bridge the gap between his

passion for math and the popular appetite for it.

"You say the word 'math' and people shut down,"

says Mr. Frenkel, sitting outdoors in New York's

Bryant Park. In his book, to be published in

October, the tenured professor at the University

of California at Berkeley argues that the boring

way that math is traditionally taught in schools

has led to a widespread ignorance that may have

even been responsible for the recession.

"It's like teaching an art class where they only

tell you how to paint a fence but they never show

you Picasso," he says of elementary school math

classes. "People say, 'I'm bad at math,' but what

they're really saying is 'I was bad at painting

the fence.' " Love is a different story, though.

"People might think they hate math but everyone

loves love," he says. "I want to put more love

into math."

And Mr. Frenkel, a youthful, puckish 45-year-old

with a slight Russian accent and a flair for

fitted shirts and tailored jeans, hopes to be

math's next leading man. With YouTube videos of

his lectures at UC Berkeley viewed by hundreds of

thousands of people-"and that's even the most

boring stuff," he adds-Mr. Frenkel does indeed

talk about math adoringly. "It is this great

connector," he says. "Nobody can take it away

from us." What he means is that while the

philosopher Pythagoras lived over 2,000 years

ago, his theorem still exists today; it holds

true across cultures, time and space. "How many

things have the same endurance?" he asks.

Mathematical formulas "have a quality of

inevitability."

Mr. Frenkel's own career was far less assured. He

says growing up Jewish in Russia in the 1970s and

1980s all but guaranteed rejection from Moscow

State University, the primary place in Moscow to

study "pure" mathematics (as opposed to applied

mathematics, which is math as it relates to other

disciplines, like engineering). On top of that,

Mr. Frenkel's grandfather was an enemy of the

state and had been sent to the gulag for eight

years. Mr. Frenkel's father had applied to the

university's physics department himself in the

1950s but was denied entry. "That story stayed

with me and in some ways I feel like I'm

fulfilling his dream as well as mine," says Mr.

Frenkel.

He applied to the university anyway at age 16;

the examiner failed him, as he expected. "Being

Jewish in Russia was not an issue of

religion-there was no religion-it was really just

ethnicity, blood," he says. Despite the failure,

after the test his examiner asked him, "How do

you know mathematics so well?" Mr. Frenkel had

learned it from a family friend who was a college

math professor. The examiner advised him to apply

to a different school, now called the Gubkin

Russian State University of Oil and Gas, because,

as Mr. Frenkel recalls him saying, "They take

people like you." He got in.

"I was lucky," he says. "Unfortunately hundreds

if not thousands of classmates didn't have that

opportunity, and their careers were broken, their

lives were broken." He and his friends from "Oil

and Gas," as it was called, used to scale the

fences of Moscow University, which had a better

known program, and sneak into classrooms to

listen in on lectures.

By his second year, Mr. Frenkel managed to solve

a math problem complicated enough to warrant its

publication in a journal with international

reach. His next paper caught the attention of

Harvard University's math department, which

invited him to visit just before he turned 21. "I

thought the Soviet Union wouldn't let me travel

abroad," he remembers, but the Iron Curtain was

starting to come down and he was allowed to go.

He arrived at Harvard as a 21-year-old visiting

professor in 1989. "I bought myself the coolest

jeans I could find, and I got myself a Walkman,"

he remembers, laughing. He went on to earn his

Ph.D. at Harvard and eventually became a

professor there, until the University of

California at Berkeley recruited him in 1997. Mr.

Frenkel spends most of his time working on the

subject broadly known as the Langlands program,

researching a grand unified theory of

mathematics, linking various fields such as

number theory, quantum physics and geometry.

He is also an advocate of the Common Core State

Standards Initiative, a set of academic standards

he thinks should be applied nationally. He

complains that varying state requirements make as

much sense as doorways of different heights. And

if more schools abolish core curricula-an idea

proposed by some academics lately, to allow more

focused students to take only the classes that

interest them-he fears private schools would

become the only ones to make difficult subjects

like algebra mandatory. "So what's going to

happen if you eliminate math or make it

selective? The 1% is going to know mathematics,"

he says.

The other problem with the public's meager

mathematical knowledge is its role in the global

economic crisis. "Mathematical models were

misused" by financial institutions, says Mr.

Frenkel. "People who were in charge did not fully

understand them but were using them anyway."

Mr. Frenkel thinks that the only way a

mathematical dialogue will begin is if it becomes

part of everyday discussion and attracts the

interest of those who never thought they were

good at it. So he came up with the idea for "The

Rites of Love and Math," and worked with a

director to write, produce and direct the film.

In it, a mathematician (played by Mr. Frenkel)

finds a formula for love, which he realizes is so

powerful it has to be hidden. So he hides it by

tattooing it on his female love interest.

"Being Russian I am very sentimental," he says,

smiling. "I liked the idea that it could get

under your skin and it could become part of you."

Mr. Frenkel shows the film at various screenings

and has made it available on DVD and online. At

the end of every screening, he says, someone

always raises a hand to ask what the formula

really means. That is the idea. "If I were to

write a formula on the board everyone would walk

out," he says. "But in the film it reallysparked

this curiosity."

His coming book tells his personal story and goes

own to describe his research in the Langlands

program, as well as recent mathematical

discoveries that aren't regularly taught in

classrooms. Mr. Frenkel doesn't mind if his

viewers, and soon readers, don't understand

everything in his work. "If they say, 'Tell me

more,' I did my job well."

Mr. Frenkel thinks rapid improvements in science

and technology will prompt even more of those

questions. "Mathematics will be king in this

brave new world," he says. With the digitization

of practically everything these days, math will

increasingly be used to order information. "We

need more and more math," he says. "Where there

is no mathematics there is no freedom."

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PHOTO SIDEBAR: Edward Frenkel. Elizabeth Lippman

for The Wall Street Journal; Grooming by Kara

Dorman

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Write to Alexandra Wolfe at alexandra.wolfe@wsj.com

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--

Jerry P. Becker

Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction

Southern Illinois University

625 Wham Drive

Mail Code 4610

Carbondale, IL 62901-4610

Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]

(618) 457-8903 [H]

Fax: (618) 453-4244

E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu