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Topic: Edward Frenkel and a Love for Math
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Edward Frenkel and a Love for Math
Posted: Aug 25, 2013 5:58 PM
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From The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, August
24, 2013. See
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 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."
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Edward Frenkel. Elizabeth Lippman
for The Wall Street Journal; Grooming by Kara
Write to Alexandra Wolfe at
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

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