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An Axiom to Grind: Berkeley Prof’s Formula for Fame is Making Math His (Steamy) Passion

April 16, 2014
by Glen Martin

Edward Frenkel is becoming quite the celebrity. The UC Berkeley math professor has traded jibes with bloviating faux right-winger Stephen Colbert on TV, his book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality was named one of 2013’s best books by both Amazon and iBooks, and his guest columns have been all over what remains of print media, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Then there’s his 2010 movie, Rites of Love and Math. Written and directed by Frenkel, the short film is an homage to the Mishima film, Yukoku, or the Rite of Love and Death. In the reprise, a mathematician played by Frenkel discovers the “mathematical formula” of love, but realizes it’s so powerful it could be used for immeasurable evil. He decides he must die to keep it from falling into the wrong hands—but first he inscribes it on his lover’s body. It’s steamy stuff: Frenkel is remarkably buff for a mathematics prof, his lover is lovely indeed, and they cavort (nude) in a paroxysm of mutual lust and scrawled equations on quivering, tender flesh.

Whew. Anyway, all that is mere means for a very specific message. Frenkel wants you to love math. More than that, he insists on it. It’s essential, he says, for your survival in the modern world. Without math, you won’t be able to truly understand how the NSA is reading your emails, or just how the financial crisis of 2008 transpired, or why climate change is going to make your beachside house halibut habitat by the turn of the century.

“Take something as basic as money,” Frenkel says. “Your money isn’t cash anymore, or even credit cards. Now you have bitcoin. But there’s a lot of misinformation about bitcoin; it’s widely misunderstood. If you’re going to understand how it’s generated and used, you need math. Even ‘regular’ money, the money in your bank account, is just a long line of numbers in a computer. Really, in today’s world, you need math to understand almost anything. If you don’t understand it, you’re vulnerable. Even worse, you’re missing out on a tremendous part of life. You’re limited. Nature is written in the language of mathematics. If you’re a nature lover—if you really want to understand nature—you need math. ”

Frenkel says he understands why people detest, even fear, math. Growing up in the former Soviet Union, he despised it as well. He found it stale and boring. It was only later, when he became besotted with quantum physics, that he came to appreciate higher math: Without it, his foray into physics was stymied. He needed math to pursue his passion, and in turn he became passionate about math as well.

Love and Math book cover

“I realized that my early aversion to math was due to the way it was taught—the way it’s still taught,” he says. “We’re using an ancient curriculum to teach modern math. I mean, we’re still introducing kids to geometry by starting them out with Euclidian geometry. That was first worked out in 300 BC. Quadratic equations were first described 830 years ago. Is there any wonder people feel math doesn’t have any reference to their real lives, that it’s dead?  How excited can you get? We can do so much better. For example, we could start students out with non-Euclidian geometry, which involves curved shapes and is much more interesting than Euclidian geometry. Kids would take to it instinctively. They mess around with curved shapes on computers and video games as a matter of course. We can find better entry points to math with a little effort.”

Frenkel acknowledges that we won’t create math adepts simply by embedding calculus lessons in the latest version of Assassin’s Creed. Nor can we expect students to become mathematical autodidacts.

“You can school yourself in certain fields,” Frenkel says. “For example, if you’re a careful and thoughtful reader, you can derive a great deal from literature simply by reading it. But math isn’t like that. It represents the highest form of abstract thinking, so you can’t just pick it up on your own. You need to be taught. You need a guide. So this has to start with mathematics teachers and professors. We have to be willing to change the way we teach math. Picasso said that all children are artists. They have an innate enthusiasm and appreciation for art. That only changes when they grow up, when they’re distracted or beaten down by other things. I feel the same way about math. Children take to it naturally when it’s presented in a compelling way. It is our obligation to make it exciting for them.”

Sometimes, Frenkel admits, his mission feels Sisyphean: There’s just a whole heap of math hatin’ going on out there. He is especially distressed when academicians (invariably from the liberal arts) pooh-pooh the importance of math. Case in point: a 2012 New York Times essay (Is Algebra Necessary?) by City University of New York emeritus political science professor Andrew Hacker. In his screed, Hacker declaims that math is used

“…as a hoop. A badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.  It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. But it’s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar. Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better….”

“Articles like that just demonstrate very poor understanding,” Frenkel says with a sigh, “and yet (Hacker) is able to influence people because he has a public megaphone. But it also makes me more determined to speak out, to counter such complete disinformation.”

Finally, Frenkel contends, math is essential because it is the only true expression of objective reality. Human language is variable, subjective, and ultimately can only express general concepts and metaphors. Moreover, languages are artificial constructs, subject to temporal pressures: What we speak and understand today is not what we spoke and understood a century or even a decade ago. But math is eternal and inviolable. Moreover, quantum mechanics have demonstrated that the “real” world we inhabit is illusion. At the sub-atomic level, where matter, space and time can only be expressed as probabilities, there is nothing that is genuinely substantive—except math.

“Math is not invented,” observes Frenkel. “It’s discovered.  It doesn’t have a shelf life. It has always been there. So it goes without saying that it’s the universal language. If we ever meet an alien intelligence, it’s probable that the only way we’ll be able to communicate is through math. But it’s more than that. Everything may ‘dissolve’ at the quantum level, but math is still there. You can properly argue it’s the only real thing.”

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