by Susan Sechrist
“Go Figure” is a regular feature at Bloom that highlights and celebrates the interdependence and integration of math and literature, and that will “chip away at the cult of youth that surrounds mathematical and scientific thinking.” Read the inaugural feature here.
I was reading Stuart Rojstaczer’s novel The Mathematician’s Shiva when my father-in-law died unexpectedly. My husband and I booked our flights back east, told our friends and co-workers, and haphazardly packed our bags. I remembered my passport, my funeral skirt and blouse, and the e-reader which housed my copy of Rojstaczer’s book. Thank goodness, because in the fugue of uncertainty, relief, guilt, sadness, and fatigue that accompanies death came Rojstaczer’s uniquely poignant humor, delivered by his narrator Sasha, who is also coping with a death—that of his mother, Rachela, a brilliant and celebrated mathematician.
Rachela Karnokovitch’s death doesn’t come with the requisite quotidian and quirky familial obligations and religious ablutions, however; in her wake, literally, are scores of grieving colleagues and greedy competitors, many of them keen to rob her figurative grave of her mathematical treasures. Sasha is curator of her legacy and it falls to him to keep in line all of the crazy mathematicians crashing his mother’s seven-day ritual shiva. On top of wrangling a herd of academics and intellectuals, Sasha has to mind his elderly father, Viktor, also a mathematician but not nearly as accomplished as his cynosural ex-wife, his fragile uncle Shlomo, fierce foster sister Anna, and wheeler-dealer cousin Bruce.
The novel uses each character, even those with ancillary roles, as eddies contributing to an emerging weather system where the small currents converge to form a large, menacing, and powerful front. This metaphor—family=storm—is particularly meaningful in Rojstaczer’s story: the brilliant Rachela studied the Navier-Stokes equations, partial differential equations used to understand the complexities of fluid flow systems. Sasha is a meteorologist who also uses these same equations to map the behavior of hurricanes. Mother and son both study turbulence. However, Sasha’s choice not to become a mathematician like his mother is the source of some of the air pockets in their relationship. These familial gaps in expectations and gulfs of disappointment are stirred up further by the old world/new world rift that evolves between members of many American émigré families: Rachela was a Polish refugee who survived the many cruelties and deprivations of the second world war, while Sasha is Americanized.
The first bolt of lightning in the swirling tempest is an improbable but tantalizing rumor: Rachela has apparently solved one of the most perplexing problems in mathematics on her death bed. This wildfire lights up under the fannies of the usually sedentary mathematicians and brings them clamoring to the funeral and shiva. Some come to pay their respects, but others aren’t above a peek in the casket, convinced Rachela might want to be buried with her precious new proof. Sasha is incredulous, but recognizes that the combination of his mother’s iron-clad intellect and survival instinct may have beaten the odds:
“The problem of the universal appropriateness of the use of the Navier-Stokes equation was the problem that my mother was rumored to have cheated death to solve. Where does such a crazy idea come from? I submit to you the following evidence: my mother, a seventy-year-old woman, ill, taking medications several times a day that made her throw up, weak, unable to realistically command anywhere near the concentration required to solve such a problem and far too old, even if healthy, to have the freshness of mind to make any headway on such a task. Who could possibly think my mother could somehow capture the magic necessary to answer a question that had baffled mathematicians, the greatest and brightest minds, for more than a century? Here is one simple answer. Mathematicians can think like this. Impossible problems perhaps require impossible scenarios. Since no one young and healthy had solved this problem, perhaps someone old and sick, by sheer will, could” (p 45).
Mathematics is highly mythologized as a discipline for the young, prodigious mind. Blooming late is unheard of in the field, which celebrates its most extraordinary experts with the Nobel-like Fields Medal, awarded only to mathematicians under the age of 40. If you haven’t done your most meaningful work before middle age, you might as well coast your way to inevitable stagnation, deterioration, and decrepitude. Mathematical fiction is full of these avatars and stereotypes (see David Auburn’s Proof). Not only was Rojstaczer’s novel a balm for my own family funeral experience, it also challenges the perception that mathematics is inherently an endeavor only for the young and incandescent genius.
While I was drawn in by the death-bed rumor, I stayed for the other lovely and surprising complexities that Rojstaczer pulls off in the novel. It is gloriously rich with mathematical thinking and curiosity without turning away those readers who never want to see an algebraic expression so long as they live. The story doesn’t dispel the myth of youth, but Rojstaczer does satisfyingly tackle what it means to bloom later in life—philosophically, emotionally, and imaginatively. I won’t spoil the twists and turns but suffice it to say that what Rachela accomplishes is a unique integration of her identity as a brilliant mathematician, strong-willed survivor, and empathic wife and mother. How she does it makes the novel an intellectual adventure, mystery, and memoir simultaneously. And, how Rojstaczer does that is to invite us along for the ride in the storm-chaser airplane.
I chatted via email with Rojstaczer about his debut novel, the cult of youth in mathematics, why the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities are still so estranged, and best practices for blooming, late or otherwise.
Bloom: Here at Bloom, we celebrate the late literary bloomer and challenge the notion that good storytelling starts and ends with youth. Your novel tackles the myth that revolutionary thinking in mathematics is only for the young mind. Are the barriers to blooming late in mathematics profoundly real, or have we structured the discipline in such a way to shut out all kinds of thinkers who don’t fit a certain stereotype?
Stuart Rojstaczer: Math does favor the young, although there are exceptions(notably, Carl Friedrich Gauss, who worked well into old age). The key to the sciences and math is that when you’re young you don’t see clearly the boundaries of what is and isn’t possible and as a result you take bigger risks. In the novel, Rachela Karnokovitch works on a single important problem her entire life, but I think it’s key that she began to work on that problem when she was very young.
Bloom: As I was finishing reading the novel, my father-in-law died unexpectedly. I found the novel wonderfully supportive and poignant during this very trying time, so, first, thank you for writing it; and second, do you think we could use partial differential equations to help us describe and understand the emotional turbulence in our families? I’m only half kidding…
SR: If you’re a math and science geek like me, the answer is yes. I often think of my real life, joys and sorrows, in terms of the math I know. I don’t think I’m all that unusual for a math and science geek in doing that, but I haven’t asked around. My wife is a scientist by training and she’ll come up with science-based analogies and metaphors all the time to describe what is happening in our lives.
Bloom: You artfully avoid having to provide a detailed mathematical primer to anyone reading the novel by using character to embody the monolithic mathematical mysteries. Through Rachela, we can relate to the wonder of topology and the Navier-Stokes equations without having to fully understand how complex and important these concepts are. My first question is, how did you accomplish this in the first place; and second, had you intended to put more “hard” mathematical concepts in the novel?
SR: I taught math-based science to non-scientists at a university for 15 years. From that, I learned by trial and error what works and doesn’t when it comes to trying to communicate math to non-scientists. Without all that teaching and lecturing, I doubt I could have pulled off writing about math in a novel meant for the general public.
I wanted to put a lot more math in the novel. Of course, I did! I love math and wanted to share what I love. But I knew from lecturing that more math would scare people. Math phobia is a real thing. I’ve seen it up close and personal.
Bloom: You wrote an essay for Publisher’s Weekly (“A Scientist Makes Art”) about how writing a novel is similar in many ways to writing a scientific article. Why do you think there is a perception that being creative and being critical are separate domains of expertise?
SR: The perception is that the underpinnings of science, numbers and math, are rigid and dull and anything that comes from them is rigid and dull. That perception is misguided. The basic underpinning of realistic fiction is that people must behave in ways that humans behave in real life. At face value, that underpinning is rigid and dull, too, but what comes from it in novels can be glorious and inspiring. The same is true for what comes from numbers and math in science. I think people discount creativity in science because they tend to dislike science as much as they dislike their dentists. I understand dental phobia. Dental work can hurt. But we scientists don’t use drills on people. We’re as cute and cuddly as baby lambs, honest.
Bloom: Can you tell me about how you decided to write a novel later in life? Were there specific challenges or unexpected joys? Do you have advice for other late bloomers?
SR: I wrote a terrible novel in my late teens and early twenties. My daughter knew about it and encouraged me to write again in my forties. I wrote another terrible novel then. In my fifties, partly in response to my daughter’s request for a family memoir (which I did write and isn’t designed for the public to read), I started to write fiction again. That’s when I discovered I had the ability to write a decent novel. I don’t understand why I have the ability to go beyond the cliché and predictable now and didn’t when I was younger. I have some guesses, but I don’t know for certain.
My advice for late bloomers is the same as it is for young writers. One, read a lot. You can’t be a good writer unless you read the greats and read them carefully. Two, finish what you start. First drafts are almost always awful. Just get that first draft done. You have no chance of writing a decent second draft if your first draft never gets finished.
Bloom: I’m obviously fascinated by authors who write fiction about mathematics. But, it seems inherently fraught—we are stuck with either writing about mathematicians and the work of mathematics in a literal or historical sense or with diluting mathematics into palatable metaphor that rounds off a lot of its most interesting characteristics. How can fiction be both literate and numerate in ways that inspire non-mathematicians to have mathematical curiosity?
SR: I think the key is that mathematicians are real people. They have hopes, dreams, disappointments, failures, successes, loves, hates, the whole works of human emotions. Yet the public doesn’t, in general, believe that. They pigeonhole mathematicians as emotionally stifled robots or forgetful, adorable Einstein-types lost in the clouds. You can never challenge a reader’s biases in the beginning of a book. They’ll close that book up and never open it again. But you can start out with the reader’s biases firmly implanted in the book and then gradually take them away. That’s what I tried to do with this novel. At the beginning, the mathematicians are geeky, funny clichés. But over the pages of the book, the reader gets exposed to their inner lives. By the end, if I’ve done my job right, the reader can relate to these mathematicians like they are people they see every day in their own lives, people they love or like or hate.
At the end of the novel, Sasha and Viktor compare the hidden legacy each has inherited from Rachela—for Sasha, it’s the handwritten pages of her memoirs, in Polish, and for Viktor, it’s her secret mathematical proof:
“My father knocked on the door as I held the papers in my hands. He didn’t bother to wait for me to answer, entered quickly and looked at me, still in the dining room. “I had second thoughts about giving you that proof, Sasha,” he said.
“Well, here it is,” I said. I held it up for him to see. “What did you think I was going to do, burn it in the fireplace?”
“Maybe. I had thoughts of doing that myself early on. It’s been hell trying to check that proof. It isn’t my field.”
“It’s been like hell translating her memoir, too. Polish isn’t my field of expertise, either” (p 273).
Each grapple with the “rigid and dull underpinnings” of topology and Polish, but with uplifting, fruitful results. Viktor validates his wife’s proof, securing her place posthumously in the history of mathematics. Sasha’s work with his mother’s memoir is much more personal. As he learns about her past, he, too, wrestles with complex and recalcitrant variables: father, mother, sibling, tormentor, lover, mentor, child. Rachela left behind two primers of her life, one professional and one personal, but to make meaning of either, her loved ones must integrate them together, a much more challenging calculation that needs Rachela’s genius but also Sasha’s and Viktor’s persistence.
In the end, Rojstaczer doesn’t really question mathematics’ cult of youth or necessity of genius but implores us to view it like any human endeavor—constructed of individual human wills, desires, abilities, and curiosities. At that individual level, any pursuit, whether scientific or artistic, is informed, inspired, and thwarted by the vast and volatile network of relationships between individuals who speak different languages, who see the world through unspeakable, unrelatable traumas, who dream at variable levels of possibility (or impossibility). One can use mathematics to beautifully explicate this network and its nodes and feedback loops; but like Rojstaczer, one can also use fiction, which has a long history of predicting turbulence and weathering storms.
Susan Sechrist is a freelance technical writer and PhD student at the University of British Columbia, striving to better integrate her creative and mathematical sides. She published her first short story, the mathematically-themed “A Desirable Middle,” both in Bloom and the Journal for Humanistic Mathematics.
Feature photo courtesy of Greg Lundeen [Public domain].