The Write Stuff: Edward Frenkel on Reaching Higher Levels of Abstraction

The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen, where authors give exclusive readings from their work.

Edward-Frenkel.jpg
Timothy Archibald
Edward Frenkel is Professor of Mathematics at University of California, Berkeley. He is also a filmmaker, having co-directed and played the lead in the film Rites of Love and Math, and author of a critically acclaimed new book Love and Math, published by Basic Books. Part memoir, part ode to the beauty of his subject, it's a book by which Frenkel wants to unlock the magic world of mathematics for people who have never used the words "love" and "math" in the same sentence.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them... ?

I tell them I am a mathematician and brace for their reaction. This is like a litmus test: will a sign of curiosity appear on their faces, or will they recoil in horror? Alas, the latter happens all too often... and that's a testimony to how misunderstood math is in our society. Which is why I recently turned to the arts, making a film and writing a book -- in order to open the world of mathematics to everyone.

What's your biggest struggle -- work or otherwise?

Undoing the damage that's been done by our math education and trying to convey how much bigger and more fascinating mathematics is -- it's really this magic parallel universe that's invading our lives at an accelerating pace, and yet it remains hidden from most of us.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Follow your heart and don't let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Well, I have the best possible job in academia, being a full professor with tenure at UC Berkeley. By other typical measures: awards, recognition, etc., I am successful as well. But what really matters to me is that I get to do what I love every day.

When you're sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

This one:

It's an awesome video summary of Burning Man 2012, one that I was fortunate to attend.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

I admired Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, and wanted to be a theoretical physicist. At that time I didn't think much of math. Like most people, I thought it was a boring and irrelevant subject. Luckily, when I was in high school I met a professional mathematician who showed me what math was really about, and I realized that it was the language of Nature. I was instantly converted.

Would you ever perform a striptease?

Well, I have already appeared nude in the film Rites of Love and Math. What wouldn't I do to expose the beauty of mathematics? ☺

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't take the word "love" lightly. I think one gets to fall in love only a few times in their lifetime (if we are lucky). Falling in love with mathematics was one of those times for me. So let's see... if I get to live to 80, and I fall in love 10 times in my life, how many times per day would I be falling in love on average?

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but I would like to see math getting proper recognition and appreciation in our society. What most people think of it now is akin to thinking of art as being nothing more than painting a fence or a wall. There is so much more to art than painting a fence, and there is so much more to math than what we study (or are forced to study) at school.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is the ultimate reflection on life, the world around us, and ourselves, and as such it is invaluable to our civilization. I believe that what separates us from cavemen is the level of abstraction we are capable of attaining. Ancient art was all about depicting objects we see in front of us, but art has since progressed to higher levels of abstraction, in parallel with science and technology. I think we can reach even higher levels of abstraction in both science and art by finding a new synthesis between the two; something like this:

(rigorous + cerebral) × (intuitive + visceral) = new level of abstraction

What are you working on right now?

And that's what I am working on right now.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. This interview conducted by Evan Karp. Follow Litseen at @Litseen.

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