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Can math be sexy? Q and A with Cal professor Edward Frenkel

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OCTOBER 25, 2013

Do you have an aversion towards math? UC Berkeley Professor Edward Frenkel is here to change that.

His new book “Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality” came out on October 1st and gives readers a new perspective on mathematics, a subject he believes has been unfortunately misbranded by the general public. Frenkel is different than the average math professor, not only has he co-directed and starred in a film “Rites of Love and Math”, but he also has the highest hotness rating possible on ratemyprofessors.com.

We at the Clog sat down with Frenkel to discuss his unique approach to the study and teaching of mathematics.

Daily Clog: What motivated you to write your new book, “Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality”?

EF: Mathematics is the most misunderstood subject in my opinion. It’s a crucial subject and yet the most misunderstood. What do I mean by that? Imagine that you had to take an art class at school in which they only taught you how to paint a fence or a wall, but they never showed you the paintings of the great artists. Never even told you that such paintings existed, that there were museums where you could go and look at them and learn about yourself and about the world. Then of course, some years later you would say ‘oh, I hated art at school. I was bad at it, I hated it,’ but in fact what you’re saying is, ‘I hated painting the fence’ and you just don’t know any better because no one told you. With this book I would like to open this magical world to people who have not been exposed to it when they studied mathematics in school.

Daily Clog: In your book you discuss the shortcomings of how math is taught today. How do you believe professors should be approaching the teaching of mathematics?

EF: Oftentimes you see students sitting in the back row and being bored and saying ‘why am I learning this math formula?’ And then to distract themselves they pull out their smartphone and start sending text messages to a friend without realizing that their smartphone may well be based on that same formula that they have to study. But nobody told them.

Here at Berkeley, when I give a lecture I try to expose students to the beauty and power of mathematics, try to show them the big picture, try to show them what mathematics is really good for, to connect it to reality. But a lot of damage is already done; by the time students get to Berkeley, they had to endure years and years of mathematics being force fed to them at school in a way that didn’t allow them to appreciate what mathematics really is. And what is even worse is often times you hear really bad stories where students are humiliated by their teachers or called in front of the classroom and said ‘oh you’re stupid, you don’t understand’, and this kind of stuff stays with you and makes it psychologically difficult to understand math.

Daily Clog: Much of “Love and Math” is autobiographical. Beyond merely being a great story, what do you believe your narrative adds to the discussion of mathematics in the book?

EF: When I was a student, I didn’t think much of mathematics. I thought it was the most boring and irrelevant subject, that might sound surprising but that’s the case. I was actually interested in physics. But I was lucky and when I was in the last year of high school I met this guy who was a friend of my parents and he was a professional mathematician, and he explained to me that if I wanted to understand quantum physics I had to study math. But not the kind of math that I was exposed to in school, and which I thought was all the math there was, but he showed me these books where there was these formulas and these equations and diagrams, which were the glimpses of this new world. And it was sort of an epiphany, I was instantly converted, I fell in love with mathematics. I tell this story to show my readers that I was in the same position but I was able to find my way into mathematics and this enriched my life. I think just becoming aware of the existence of this vast archipelago of knowledge is going to enrich their lives.

Daily Clog: Beyond your new book, you are somewhat well known for your film “Rites of Love and Math”, in which you not only co-directed, but also starred in. Tell us about the intent behind producing the film.

EF: I believe that there is such extensive damage in terms of how people perceive mathematics and misunderstand mathematics that it is very difficult to talk directly about it. So how can I possibly convey this idea that mathematics is beautiful, that it is powerful, that there is a lot of emotion and passion in mathematical research? I can try to do it directly by going in front of a blackboard and trying to explain the formula, but there are some limitations to this. The idea behind the film was to try to appeal to not the cerebral but to the emotional, to the visceral. One of the ideas we had was to talk about a tattoo of a mathematical formula, and to me this represents this sort of idea that mathematics gets under your skin, just like the ink of a tattoo.

When we showed the film, I sensed that the formula did get under the skin, just because people were surprised to see that indeed the mathematical formula could be beautiful like a poem or a piece of music. But the best thing for me was when at the end of the screening someone would raise their hand and ask, ‘But what does this formula actually mean?’ Because that was the whole point. That is what I wanted my viewers to ask. I wanted them to be curious about the formula.

Daily Clog: You have a reputation as the a-typical mathematician, for example, for appearing partially nude in your film. What else do you do that does not fit the typical math professor stereotype?


EF: For one thing, I like Electronic Dance Music. One of the laments I have is with the way mathematics is typically portrayed in films. Normally when you watch a documentary film about mathematics you always have a string quartet playing in the background. And I love classical music, my sister is a professional musician and I always had classical music in my home growing up, but that is just one kind of music, there are many different genres. Why is that we always associate mathematics with classical music? Why not with some house music DJs? I listen to House music and it gives me a lot of energy. I go clubbing in Ibiza on vacation. I think if our students know that their math professors are not necessarily fitting that stereotype that has been created by mass media and in Hollywood films like “ A Beautiful Mind” and “Pi” and “Proof,” then maybe this will peak their interest a little more. Maybe they will realize that you can be a mathematician and have a fulfilling personal life; there is no contradiction between the two.

Professor Frenkel will be teaching a topics graduate course next semester on his research in the Langlands Program, in addition to writing a scholarly book on subject. Next academic year he hopes to teach a “Big Ideas” course together with a history professor, as well as multivariable calculus.

Image Sources: headshot courtesy of Edward Frenkel and photo from ratemyprofessor

Contact Pranav Trewn at [email protected].

OCTOBER 25, 2013

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