It’s not often that a mathematician finds himself on “The Colbert Report.” But a few weeks ago U.C. Berkeley professor Edward Frenkel, author of the new book “Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality,” explained to talk show host Stephen Colbert that for people like him “mathematics is a love affair,” with his lover being the beauty and truth of numbers.
“I hate math!” Colbert said.
“That’s my fault,” responded Frenkel, 45, a household name in math departments for his work on such obscure concepts as Kac-Moody algebra and the Feigin-Frenkel isomorphism. He said that many teachers have explained mathematics as if it were a necessary but unpleasant task, “like painting a fence,” as opposed to offering skills to both create and appreciate a van Gogh.
To underscore his view of math as both art and romance, Frenkel showed Colbert a short scene from his 2010 erotic art film, “Rites of Love and Math,” in which he starred and directed.
“I guess I should have hit the books a little harder,” Colbert responded, fanning himself dramatically.
Frenkel’s emergence on the national cultural scene may owe less to a suddenly widespread understanding of his research — which is admirably and lucidly explained in “Love and Math” — than to his passionate argument for the practical value of math in an increasingly numbers-driven culture.
“Our math education is broken,” the Russian-born Frenkel argued in a recent essay in the Los Angeles Times.
The solution? “If we are to give students the right tools to navigate an increasingly math-driven world, we must teach them early on that mathematics is not just about numbers and how to solve equations but about concepts and ideas.”
To underscore the stakes, he recorded a video describing how the National Security Agency’s use of math is what allowed the government to hack into so many email accounts. And in “Love and Math,” he describes how the 2008 financial meltdown was the result of bankers and traders using bad mathematical models, for a public that didn’t even know what questions to ask.
But his book, as he explained in an interview near his Berkeley home, is not only about alerting people to the practical value of math. Math is, for him, “a narrative” of human endeavor that shares much with art, music and religion.
For instance, he describes new mathematical insights as “revelations,” and the utterly unchanging truths of mathematical ideas are “nothing short of a miracle.” He also brings us into the spiritual mindset of mathematicians and physicists — many of them Jewish — who described the suddenly revealed inner workings of the universe with rapturous language. Einstein was famous for these pronouncements, writing that “some spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man.”
More recently Murray Gell-Mann, who discovered the tiny particles called quarks, described their structure in Buddhist terms, while the Hungarian Paul Erdös, who believed God kept the most elegant proof of each mathematical theorem in “The Book,” described teaching a math class as “preaching.”
“Love and Math” also paints a vivid picture of Soviet life in the 1980s, when Jewish mathematicians were barred from the best graduate programs. Frenkel was rejected from Moscow State University, and instead attended a second-rate technical university, where he was inducted into a shadow world of Jewish mathematicians doing groundbreaking work on the margins of the Russian establishment. This “Jewish People’s University” was full of promising mathematicians who, like Frenkel, left the USSR (and then Russia) in the ’80s and ’90s for posts in the United States.
Frenkel’s escape brought him to Harvard, where he had the odd experience of first being a visiting professor, and then earning his Ph.D. (in one year). In 1997, he was offered a position at U.C. Berkeley, and he has been there ever since.
This experience of Russian anti-Semitism helped sharpen Frenkel’s view that “where there is no math, there is no freedom.” And Frenkel’s mathematical freedom at Berkeley has allowed him to help lead the search for a unified theory of math, similar to what Einstein started looking for in physics almost a century ago. He is part of an international group of scholars associated with the Langlands program at Princeton, which seeks to create unexpected connections between far-flung branches of mathematics, as well as between math and physics.
The goal of this unified theory “uncovers and brings into focus mysterious patterns shared by different areas of math and thus points to deep, unexpected connections between them.” These different branches are like continents: While it used to take months to get from Europe to North America, it now takes hours. Soon, mathematically speaking, it might be instantaneous — with enormous implications for understanding the hidden heart of reality.
Although Frenkel’s Jewish experiences in Moscow were limited to anti-Semitism, “my Jewish identity,” he said, “has since brought me a lot of positive experience. I have visited and given lectures at conferences in Israel, and I stay in touch with my friends and colleagues there. I have been curious about Judaism, and I have followed with interest works of Jewish scholars and authors. Mathematics is one and the same for everyone and we all share mathematical knowledge, so there can be no such thing as ‘Jewish mathematics.’ But I think one can speak of something like ‘Jewish spirituality.’ ”
And who might be Frenkel’s “rabbis”?
“Spinoza and Einstein come to mind,” he said.
It’s possible that mathematics is too abstract to turn Frenkel into this generation’s Carl Sagan, whose “Cosmos” TV series brought new ideas about space into our living rooms. But Frenkel is going all out to try and convince Americans that math is not just a skill we need to succeed, but something like the Force from “Star Wars”: “Mathematics,” he writes, “directs the flow of the universe, lurks behind its shapes and curves, holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars.”
Frenkel’s videos teaching calculus at U.C. Berkeley, or discussing the NSA and encryption on Numberphile, have already reached millions of viewers. And in April, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, along with a small group of creators including Al Pacino and novelists Annie Proulx and John Irving.
One of Frenkel’s fans is Chris Carter, creator of the landmark TV show “The X-Files.” In an interview at the Los Angeles Public Library, Carter asked him flat out whether he saw science as a quest for God.
“There is room for the spiritual in math, just as there is room for magic,” he answered. “And I want us all to awaken to this hidden reality.”
Dan Schifrin is a writer living in Berkeley.