Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality — Edward Frenkel

On Reddit someone asked mathematicians what is beautiful about math; it’s the rare interesting-but-SFW Reddit question and, while I’m not a mathematician, I could contribute because I just read Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (it’s recommended to anyone who wants to understand more about the relationship of the subjects in the title).

In the preface Frenel says that he hopes “Mathematics will get under your skin just like it did under mine, and your worldview will never be the same.” To him, “we have a hunger to discover something new, reach new meaning, understand better the universe and our place in it,” and math enables us to do so. Throughout the book, he describes many of the unexpected correspondences among branches of math, which I could more or less follow.

The story of love and math is bound with Frenkel’s personal story and how he managed to pursue math despite the Soviet Union’s anti-Semitism, and there are many vignettes about mathematicians along the way, like this one: “Perhaps most importantly, Gelfand possessed an excellent taste for beautiful mathematics as well as an astute intuition about which areas of mathematics were the most interesting and promising. He was like an oracle who had the power to predict in which direction mathematics would move.”

Admiration for math also becomes admiration for the mathematicians who do it: “Galois did not solve the problem of finding a formula for solutions of polynomial equations in the sense in which it was understood. He hacked the problem! He reformulated it, bent and warped it, looked at it in a totally different light. And his brilliant insight forever changed the way people think about numbers and equations.”

Math feels like a thrilling story in Frenkel’s telling, and he persistently and perhaps aptly criticizes the way it is commonly taught in schools, saying that if math were taught like painting, students would endlessly study how to paint a fence but would never look at masters like Cézanne or Titian. Frenkel also thinks in metaphor, as virtually all great writers must, and his use of metaphors anchors otherwise abstract ideas.

Stories about science and discovery are one way to get away from the standard romance plots that power much fiction, and away from many of the portrayals of consciousness that have become effectively masturbatory in much capital-L Literary Fiction. David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk is a good and underrated example of this.

Life: Making the right mistakes edition

The statement of the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil conjecture must have sounded crazy to its creators. . . . the idea that this was true. . . must have sounded totally outrageous at the time. This was a leap of faith, in the form of a question that [Taniyama] posed at the International Symposium on Algebraic Number Theory held in Tokyo in September 1955.

I’ve always wondered: what did it take for him to come to believe that this wasn’t crazy, but real? To have the courage to say it publicly?

We’ll never know. Unfortunately, not long after his great discovery, in November 1958, Taniyama committed suicide. He was only thirty-one. To add to the tragedy, shortly afterward the woman whom he was planning to marry also took her life, leaving the following note:

We promised each other that no matter where we went, we would never be separated. Now that he is gone, I must go too in order to join him.

. . . In his thoughtful essay about Tayniyama, Shimura made this striking comment:

Though he was by no means a sloppy type, he was gifted with the special capability of making many mistakes, mostly in the right direction. I envied him for this, and tried in vain to imitate him, but found it quite difficult to make good mistakes.

—Edward Frenkel, Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, which is recommended.

What mistakes have you made lately?

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