An award-winning mathematician explains his passion for pure mathematics, a subject that reveals a “hidden parallel universe of beauty and elegance, intricately intertwined with ours.”
Growing up in the last days of the Soviet Union, Frenkel (Mathematics/Univ. of California) benefited from the richness of a mathematical culture that still survived despite the brutally oppressive regime. Jews were denied education in fields such as mathematical physics, which were considered important for national security. As the son of a Jewish father, Frenkel was denied admission to Moscow State University (despite his brilliant showing on entrance exams) and tracked instead to study applied mathematics at a different school. Frenkel's parents, who worked as professional engineers in an industrial town 70 miles from Moscow, had recognized the brilliance of their son and enlisted a local college professor to mentor him in higher mathematics while he was still in secondary school. Through this professor, the author gained access to a circle of top Soviet mathematicians in Moscow, who allowed him to secretly attend seminars at the university and gave him challenging problems to solve. Fortunately for him, with Gorbachev's rise to power, Frenkel was allowed to immigrate to the United States and attend Harvard. “Suddenly, as if by a stroke of black magic, it all became clear to me,” he writes of his first independent discovery. The author’s specialty became the “Langlands Program,” which unites abstract algebra and topology and ultimately has provided insights into quantum theory. Frenkel’s attempts to explain the mathematical search for symmetries among different operations (beginning with modular arithmetic and leading ultimately to the behavior of quarks) will be difficult for the mathematically unversed to follow.
A fascinating peek into the author's life and work.