From The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, August 24, 2013.
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
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.
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
reallyŠsparked 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
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."
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Edward Frenkel. Elizabeth Lippman for
The Wall Street Journal; Grooming by Kara Dorman
Write to Alexandra Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org
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