Berkeley Writers at Work: Edward Frenkel

Berkeley Writers at Work: Edward Frenkel

Professor of Mathematics Edward Frenkel reads from his work, is interviewed about his writing process, and takes questions from the audience. The Writers at Work series provides an opportunity to hear from UC Berkeley writers about all aspects of their writing process.

so welcome everybody my name is Bob Jacobsen I'm a physicist and from the College of Letters in science and I'm here to welcome you to Berkeley writers at work and to introduce our speaker I want to say that you'll probably detect a tremendous smile on my face because I just love these phones with hands so I think this is sort of the core of what the Berkeley community is about people who are doing things people who are exploring new avenues writers who are writing something that incidentally has a fist as I'm incapable of doing and and willing to share them with their colleagues and talk about how they do it and the value of it so our speaker today who will talk a little bit read a little bit from one of his books and then be interviewed about his process and then I think answer some questions from the audience if there's sufficient time it's professor Edward Frenkel of mathematics 20 years ago he made the decision to come here from Harvard I haven't asked whether he's regretted it but let's assume not for a second and in the subsequent time he's published 90 papers with titles that reigned from on the end of morphisms of while modules over a fine cack moody algebra is at the critical level to Google should not be allowed to secretly correct private medical data showing the range of Berkeley faculty and what they think about I'm not gonna make any comments about which of those two is more interesting but he also has a one which i think is fascinating and I will now go read called the Nobel Prize in Physics is really a Nobel Prize in math published a few years ago so that pretty much covers the range he's also published three books again covering an incredible range from Langlands correspondence for loop groups and it's riveting successor vertex algebra and algebraic curves to perhaps one that's a little bit better known love and math so without any more to say I'd like to welcome professor Frankel here thank you for doing this [Applause] hello I welcome all and thank you so much for coming oh my god I'm so you know moved we see so many faces here especially on such a glorious day you know sir somehow you choose to be here inside although the library is pretty glorious as well isn't it it's been a while since I've been here and I will make a point of coming here more often I was just reading about it it was it opened in 1928 believe it or not and there is a picture of may treat Morrison I am still trying to figure out these I think also painting of her I'm still trying to figure out the exact connection but she was a professor here professor of literature so something to explore to Google about in the next few days so it's it's a great pleasure to be here and I was asked to at the beginning to read a little bit from something that I have written I guess to set the tone I don't want to make it too too long but I was thinking about it so I decided not to read from the from the book level math but rather from two short pieces which I wrote both were published in 2015 one in the New York Times and the other one on the Huffington Post blog and I think they kind of covered two sides of things that I like to write about or things related to science and mathematics that I find fascinating one is sort of the beauty and the mystery and the oh of mathematics and science and exploration the sense of exploration the sense of wonder the sense of the unknown and the other is kind of opposite side is the the dangers of of applications of modern science and mathematics in technology which is all around us so if you don't mind let me read a little bit from the first one it is it is called the reality of quantum weirdness and it was published you can find it on a New York Times website it was published in February of 2015 and it's a in The New York Times that has this series of opens which is called a gray matter they usually publish it Friday or Saturday and it's sort of about weird stuff you know related to science and usually there is an article there is a particular article academic article which has been published around which it's it's sort of revolves so that explains a little bit the set up okay here it goes and please please tell me if I am going too fast or am i if I am too if I'm not loud enough if you can hear me because you know I'm a mathematician so I'm a little bit nerdy so you know okay I might just go into my odd thing okay in Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon you guys know this movie Russian moon it's one of the greatest samurai has been murdered but it's not clear why or by whom various characters involved tell their versions of the events but their accounts contradict one another you can't help wondering which story is true but the film also makes you consider a deeper question is there a true story or is our belief in a definite objective observer independent reality and illusion this very question brought into sharper scientific focus has long been the subject of debate in quantum physics is there a fixed reality apart from our various observations of it or is reality nothing more than a kaleidoscope of infinite possibilities this month a paper published online in the journal Nature Physics presents experimental research that supports the latter scenario that there is a russian-born effect not just in our descriptions of nature but in nature itself over the past hundred years numerous experiments on elementary particles have upended the classical paradigm of a causal that there monistic universe consider for example the so-called double slit experiment we shoot a bunch of elementary particles say electrons at the screen that can register their impact but in front of the screen we place a partial obstruction a wall with two thin parallel vertical slits we'll look at the resulting pattern of electrons on the screen what do we see if the electrons were like little pellets which is what classical physics would lead us to believe then each of them would go through one slit or the other and we would see a pattern of two distinct distinct lumps you see easier I'm saying so that they have two slits you you throw electrons at this wall with two slits so that they go through either and then they get registered on a screen behind so if they were indeed like pellets they would go through one or the other so there will be two lumps on the screen but in fact we observe something entirely different an interference pattern as if two waves are colliding creating ripples astonishment this happens even if we shoot the electrons one by one meaning that each electron somehow acts like a wave and interfering with itself as if it is simultaneously passing through both slits at once so an electron is a wave not a particle not so fast for if we place devices at the slits the tag the electrons according to which Li they go through so kind of put a detector behind behind the wall to see to catch the electron through which lated goes fast allowing us to know their whereabouts then the interference pattern disappears instead we see two lumps on the screen as if the electrons suddenly aware of being observed decided to act like little pellets to test their commitment to being particles we can tag them as they pass through the slits but then using another device erase the tags before they hit the screen if we do that guess what it does go back to their wave-like behavior and the interference pattern miraculously reappears there is no end to the practical jokes we can pull on the poor electro it's not so bad but with a weary smile it always shows that the joke is on us the electrons appears to be a strange hybrid of a wave and a particle that's neither here and there nor here or there like a well-trained actor it plays the role it's been called to perform it is as though it has resolved to prove the famous Bishop Berkeley maxim to be is to be perceived Bishop Berkeley of course the man after whom our great university has been named that's his famous maxim to be used to be perceived but actually I don't know if you know the story it's a beautiful story why the university was named after Berkeley so I'll just leave it with you google it you'll find that there was a beautiful poem about going to the West which was read at the first meeting of the religions of the University and they were so excited because they came to the West for the frontiers of the West essentially and that's why they called our University in Berkeley so it's kind of I was kind of nice for me to name the rockwork in this record remember I remember that when I was writing it anyway it goes on but let me switch to another one so that's just so that we don't so save some time so this gives you an idea of what I see sort of like the best of what science gives us is this you know mind-boggling and mind-bending sort of phenomena and and effects which make us question our very sense of reality of what's around us of what life is about what's going on you know and that's where science can be our great ally in other instances though it can be our foe and so the I'm going I want to read a little bit from another piece I wrote which actually had great difficulty publishing in traditional outlets such as New York Times and slate and ended up publishing on Huffington Post blog you be you be the one to guess why the tradition publications kind of didn't want to have it and I I titled it simply Google should not be allowed to secretly collect private medical data this is something that happened in May of 2016 soon half years ago and it was I feel as though it was kind of a forewarning of many other things to come naturally a much bigger much bigger debacles have happened since then such as the infamous now Facebook Cambridge analytic at the back oh where I'm not going to get into details I'm sure you guys have all heard about it which made us question that our whole relationship with social media the internet data collection surveillance etc this was a relatively minor one could say incident what happened was that in September of 2015 the deepmind a subsidiary fully owned subsidiary of Google the one which became famous in the news because they programmed a computer to wait to beat a go champion in a series of matches they had a secret agreement with the with the government agencies in Britain to collect 1.6 million medical records or medical records of 1.6 million British citizens without any consent without letting them know the secret agreement and New Scientist broke the story in May of 2015 so many months later and it was a big it was a big outrage and so that's when I wrote this piece we have grown so accustomed to vast collection of our personal data and breaches of our privacy by both government agencies and private companies that new revelations no longer come as a surprise however we could not pass over in silence the secret agreement made in September 2015 but first reported by New Scientist on April 29 2016 given Google's subsidiary deep mind access to confidential medical records of 1.6 million Britons this records from the United Kingdom's Health Service NHS apparently includes such details as a person's full name HIV status results of pathology and radiology tests past drug overdoses and logs of their hospital stays including who visited them and when NHS has given assurances of anonymity for this data but that offers little comfort in fact the agreement states that should pseudonym ization is not required and besides even anonymized data may be used to reveal private information concerns have been raised over why deep mind needs such a wide range of data when its stated goal is to develop an app for the Prevention of a specific kidney disease furthermore the sensitive data are given to deep mind without earlier informing patients of seeking their consent questions have been asked whether in order to have access to this data Google has was obligated to receive a regulatory approver approval under a UK law Google has not applied for such an approval and has argued that it was not necessary but critics believe that in fact the law does required what makes this case especially troubling is that Google is the world's largest information technology company and one of the world's two biggest companies overall today given our collective addiction to technology Google wills tremendous power over our tastes our behavior and our future health care is surely an area in which technology companies have an important role to play in particular properly supervised data analysis using novel learning algorithms has the potential to improve the diagnostics and treatment of major diseases and no doubt Google has done the world much good with its search engine and other products however the company's secrecy and lack of oversight are of grave concern when it acquired that artificial intelligence startup deepmind two years ago so that's 2014 for reported 650 million dollars Google promised to set up an ethics board to deal with the issues of artificial intelligence well I googled Google Ethics Board and there is still no information about it by the way I googled it today again and there's still no information see what's going on and well they created two other boards in the meantime but no the one not the ethics boards it's insane to be completely honest about it and I was kind of diplomatic and urgh I said that is troubling I think it's more than that artificial intelligence is invading our lives through various programs and devices but it's a double-edged sword for example a facial recognition program can be used to quickly organize your photo album but it can also be used in a lethal autonomous weapon system that identify suspects and strikes them without human supervision that's along with great promise AI artificial intelligence intelligence holds the potential for unprecedented risks to the humankind that's why transparency and oversight are crucial in this area alas Google hasn't been particularly forthcoming with information about its AI project but here's what we know about deep mind founded by three brilliant young scientists the company was in the news recently because a deep learning algorithm alphago it had developed beat a human go champion no doubt an impressive achievement unfortunately the company's CEO then proceeded to declare the deep mines algorithms could lead to a meta solution to any problem that is a wild exaggeration given what we know about the limitations of such algorithms as a mathematician I can attest that although there are some elements of twentieth-century math in them they are really based on 19th century mathematics cleverly adapted the math itself is beautiful and I salute my fellow bath-maticians' and computer scientists pushing the boundaries of what such algorithms can do but to believe that everything about life can be explained in this way is akin to the exuberance of an 11-year old who has learned trigonometry and it's so excited about it he thinks the whole world is trigonometry and simple this is hubris and I'm sorry to say it is reflected in how deep mind has acted in acquiring the medical data not bothering to ask for people consent not following ethics rules and regulations what these actions communicate is that deep mind views people's medical histories merely as a bunch of data it wants to feed into learning algorithm the same way it used the old go games for training the alphago algorithms and if a company treats people as pieces of a board game why should I care about privacy and ethics well that is precisely why we should care why we shouldn't give deep mind and its parent company a free hand and using our private data without proper supervision unlike a human a company is an algorithm said to maximize a utility function profit therefore companies often become secretive evading oversight but we shouldn't set the bar low we must demand transparency and oversight especially of technology companies that excerpt such profound influence on our lives ultimately it will depends on us this is not about robots and algorithms it's about us humans it's about who we are who we want to be so it can change slowly but I think probably enough to give you a gist of what this is all about by the way the story is still ongoing because a year later the UK in Information Commissioner's Office released the report saying that in fact Google failed gülen's through deepmind failed to comply with appropriate laws they did not ask for any punitive punitive measures unfortunately so it's kind of but at least it's out in the open we know that it was wrong and so I hope that we speak as we speak more about it such as today we will encourage these companies to come clean and to provide more transparency accountability and oversight all right what do we don't know yes please okay good afternoon my name is John Levine from the college writing programs and I want to welcome everyone to Berkley writers at work I want to thank the Morrison library for hosting us in this lovely space it's it's just such a wonderful place to spend some time and we're gonna spend some time today talking about writing among other things and math as well I know about writing a little bit I know some what I know very little about math I know much more now that I've read this book and it's it's just a pleasure to have you here I have an agenda I'll just put it out right up front I want to find out I know how humanities people think about writing I don't know how mathematicians how stem people think about writing and if there is a difference so if we can start with that do you since you are both a mathematician and a very fine writer can you speak to that question please that's a good that's a good one yes and by the way I want to say I want to thank you John for inviting me it it sort of came out of the blue with this invitation and it's like whoa I didn't even know but it's such a program exist now for sure I know and writing program and of course it you know I said yes right away I was I am honored to be here and especially after looking at the list of names of people who participated in this program in the past why why did I start right so it's interesting I saw I had thought about it so I can give you a kind of a short version of it you know what interested me in mathematics from the beginning is the sense of unity which is unfortunate somehow often lost and I think this is sort of normal it's normal as one of the men of the movements of life is to try to unify and connect and the other movement of so with one hand we will unify him connect with another hand we try to to fracture and split and break into pieces and look at the pieces and try to reassemble just like kids you know playing on the seashore you know so and each of us I think is predisposed to a little more to do one or the other we all do both ultimately and but we are pretty supposed to one or the other and I feel as though for me the predisposition has always been more to bring bringing things together rather than taking them apart so when I started in mathematics I after doing a few a few you know research papers and so on I came across this vast subject which became the central point of my research which is what is known today as a Langlands program named after a great mathematician who is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study you can be about more about this in my in my book for example and online but at the time I was 21 years old you know so I didn't really understand it consciously in the terms in which I feel with hindsight I can understand now why I was so excited about it the the purpose of the language program the idea of the Langa's program is to see this these hidden connections hidden commonalities between different subjects of mathematics which seem to be far apart such as number theory analysis geometry etc and these days in fact these ideas have propagated to quantum physics my research has been lately on the interface of mathematics and quantum physics connected to the language program so but now if I imagine so then I wanted to learn about each of those fields to really understand how I connect have to connect them and then what I found is that there are very few people who knew that many people could do number theory but then they wouldn't know analysis what we do analysis didn't know geometry and so on and I somehow took it upon myself I found it very interesting to go and share what I learned with other people so I would give talks I would write survey articles and so on so that was the first impulse of writing because then okay it was still academic writing it was still mathematical papers but they were papers addressed to people across the subfields of mathematics and I found it very interesting so my next level was to connect to physicists because then kind of physicists came into the fold of the language program as well because of the of the connections discovered in physics quantum physics so then I was there to explain to physicists what mathematical language from was about I was there to explain to mathematicians what pieces are up to so then of course a natural step after that was to go out of the scientific audience and that's how love and masks come about so making connections now I think connections yeah and do you think that comes out of your mathematical mind for lack of a better term making these connections between these various theories these various fields and then to connect to different people different groups of people yes in some ways yes but I think more so it's the opposite the opposite impulse because mathematics is the way I see it now is why did I go into math nice to begin with you know in part because I like that the rigor the subjective quality of mathematics you know Pythagoras theorem was discovered by Pythagoras 2,500 years ago and many others at the same time or even earlier and the still means the same to us today as it did to Pythagoras it still will mean the same 2,500 years from now you know it's x squared plus y squared equals Z squared it's not like next year it's going to be Z cube it's still going to be Z squared there is something that's special you know I sometimes I say if Leo Tolstoy you know since I'm Russian so the kind of natural to make analogous with Russian authors if Leo Tolstoy did not write on a Karenina there is no reason to believe that someone else would ride the same novel yet if Pythagoras had not discovered the Tigers theorem we would still have the same theorem so there is this quality of endurance and quality of eternal knowledge and it's kind of a black-and-white it's true or false and I was drawn to this but in part because I didn't like the uncertainty of the real world and I wanted something where I could just hold on to something and something say this is true and this is false I was very comfortable in that pure intellectual domain where there was absolute certainty so now from that perspective me writing is the opposite writing is is more Quantum's and sense to me you know is when you are it's you in the end and the blank piece of paper what's going to happen it's like the electron goes through the slits which slit is going to go through right one or the other or both we don't know so to me it was a way it was a taste it was a first taste of uncertainty where I was kind of reluctant and afraid to step out of a comfort zone of my subject but because writing was not that far away it was after all close to my writing mathematical papers right this was my way to taste to taste that life that's other aspect of life of an aspect of uncertainty of something dynamic something living something that I could not control and how does it taste oh my god I got addicted I was like I did I didn't know it at the time it's funny because now you know that could be here and to revisit all this which was not so long ago by the way the the most concentrated effort on writing the book eleven math was in 2000 between September of 2012 and June of 2013 so more or less six years ago but my life has changed so much you know in in and this is one of the things about writing to me is I set out to teach the world something I set out to share something deeply held in my heart with the world and I think to some extent I did but in the process somewhat unexpectedly mm-hmm I also learned a lot about myself mm-hmm and this was surprising because and that when I set out to write the book I was I was one of the reasons was that I was appalled by the how little people know about mathematics by the treasures of mathematics and I thought it was really an untenable situation and I felt that I felt ashamed that we don't share enough my teachers who don't share enough so I wanted to share I want to show the treasures in that so and you point that out in your book that if only math were taught correctly or if it were taught in a different way more people would appreciate you Luna and I I do appreciate math in theory unfortunately I'm well never say never but I don't think I'm gonna go back to school and study math I'd love to maybe we can talk afterwards but I feel like I'm one of those people who feels that way I just missed the math boat as interested if interested as I am I just missed it I'm not good at it but this book brought out a new appreciation for math I'm glad I'm glad to hear that thank you and you know most of us most of us I was lucky I feel like I was lucky that I chose this subject and I had wonderful teachers and mentors even though I also had to overcome some formidable obstacles as you know from the book but I had I was given a chance to see this beauty and see these treasures at the beginning of the book I I say that imagine an art class in which they only show you how to paint fences and walls but never show you the paintings of the great masters like because in Van Gogh which by the way is on the cover of the book yes it was not chosen by me but it is perfectly captured by the great artist who works for my publisher and so it was a good quinces Chris Bangkok was actually one of my favorite painters and I was a kid so imagine that the only show you have to paint fences and walls but never show you the paintings of the great masters in most cases painting we are painting something with a paint right so then years later people who say art art is so great they say hey what's so great about it this painting walls fences and walls I I don't find it interesting at all also I don't think I have talent for it and besides I can always hire somebody to do it so that's more or less the attitude about mathematics people are not even aware that there are this that there are these masterpieces the museums of mathematics are basically locked and only there this select few the elite like myself right I have the keys actually it's changed specially it's changing even in the last 65 years since the book was published it's getting better it's getting better why do you think that is do you think that the field was just proprietary that they didn't want others in there are several aspects of it I think it's it's complicated it's been going on for for centuries well I think it's more important to understand not why it happened but what should we do about it now okay I mean of course if we had more time I would be happy to tell you like why I think it happened in a way one of the reasons by the way is that it is a situation it's very good for the powers that be it's a very nice situation because every time there's a mathematical formula the majority of the public go math I don't get it you know but by the way people get traumatized also in math classes because they are told specifically by their teacher that they're stupid they don't understand and that is the end of it for most of us it's really really tragic so because in my opinion you know III like this quote by Picasso that because he said every child is an artist the question is to preserve that as you grow up and I would say the same about math every child is a mathematician if you look at children who have not yet been told that they cannot do it I have not yet been told that they're stupid look at them and try to solve math problem they love it it's a game which is what it should be now okay so see I can go on oh no no no but how nice for the powers that be because you can do surveillance you can do backdoors you can do various dubious schemes like you know pyramid schemes like the financial crisis or Bitcoin and just simply because people are duped because they don't know mathematics or you know one of my examples my third examples is this when we found out how the NSA inserted a backdoor in a very popular algorithm an encryption algorithm they used elliptic curves so it was the most abstract and abstruse algorithm very possibly come up with why because there was more chance that people wouldn't question it so that's one of the aspects for sure okay and one of the reasons why we have to change the station you see so and the way we deal with it is of course by talking about mathematics by and the the great fault the great responsibility lies with my people of my profession is mathematicians that we don't do enough and in fact a lot of my colleagues I'm sorry to say are kind of happy about the arrangement because it makes us feel good about ourselves we know something we know the secret why should we divulge it you know it gives us power it gives us a sense of power but of course it's you know of course you have to you have to share it's like Picasso is first of all when you when you see this beauty how can you not share it is you cannot hoard it and say oh it's mine it's my formula no it's like a lot by the way that's one of the connections we didn't love in that mm-hmm-hmm when you're in love you share your love you know you can't hold it either give me more give me more love that it's not love likewise with math then it's not math you know so yes okay good one of the one of the other things I wanted to talk about is the process of writing and the process of thinking about math and there there were so many quotations I thought about including in the program but this one happens to be in here from love and math it's the first quotation under a brief Frankel reader I'll read it aloud with any math problem you never know what the solution will involve you hope and pray that you will be able to find a nice and elegant solution and perhaps discover something interesting along the way and you certainly hope that you will actually be able to do it in a reasonable period of time that you won't have to wait for 350 years to reach the conclusion but you can never be sure and the reason I point that out is because that's a lot like writing I mean and you having been you familiar with both worlds I wanted to I want you to talk a little bit about that right so 350 years referring is referring to the one of the most famous problems in all of mathematics sure Mars Last Theorem which I took in in the book and it took 350 years to solve and the last sort of steps were done by a mathematician Andrew Andrew Wiles who basically for seven or eight years of his life was exclusively working on this topic without knowing that whether he would be able to succeed and without in secret he didn't tell anyone tell anybody which is something by the way which our academic system certainly doesn't encourage because the academic system encourages us to publish and so on and do things much are more safe so so that also brings me to perhaps correct a little bit what I said earlier about certainty in math yes okay so on the one hand there is certainty about the knowledge of math Michael knowledge this is true this false and so on right but there is already an inherent element of uncertainty when you do mathematics when you talk about math max is a human activity for instance when you trace out a set out to solve a problem which has not been solved you cannot in principle be sure whether you will succeed or not but for some problems though it's more safe and they feel more safe they feel like yeah okay I don't know how but I pretty much know the math as the tools and I'm British 99% sure that I will solve it within a year or within a month or whatever but there are problems which are not even like that you see and so so that sense that's also another way in which we get the taste of the uncertainty of being a mathematician that's true so when you sat down to write this book or let's look at a smaller piece when you wrote when you write your New York Times essays when you write your glue your your Huffington Post whatever it is do you know before you set pen to paper or hand to keyboard what you're gonna write or do you experience that uncertainty or and very much answer very much uncertainty so the idea of the book of this book evolved so much and there have been so many people who contributed to my evolution I think some of them in the book and by the way this is important because it connects also to something which you know my book in as many ways is a love letter the way I see it is a love letter to my teachers because if you read the book you will know that I I experienced certain serious problems difficult obstacles to becoming a mathematician so I was not accepted to Moscow University in 1994 like an old wells book because of rampant anti-semitism and discrimination that I faced but I was able to overcome that because of the generosity of some very specific individuals mathematicians who took me under their wings and who helped me to overcome to kind of go and to go around the door the door was closed but I had they kind of say okay we'll take you to the VIP entrance around the corner and they did it for now was absolute nothing for them and this was real love love is something where you don't ask for anything in return and this love can be a it can be a romantic love but it can be a love between a teacher and student or it could be love for mathematical formula or you know and so on written more work of art it's the key element is you don't ask for anything in return otherwise it is not pure love it is not it simply is not and therefore in some senses it could never experience the flight that comes with that that sense of of everything one comes with real with the real love and so and this happened to me and the book helped me to appreciate how much I benefited from this generous human beings who you know it could be a small gesture could be small thing it could be an amazing sustained effort but they did it without asking for anything why because they saw promise in me because they wanted to help for no reason just because and it's very important I think as I grow older for us to appreciate those people remember your teachers call them up you know call them up send them an email say how are you doing it's an amazing thing you know sometimes I'm also on the receiving end nowadays of this you cannot underestimate how beautiful it is to receive a letter from a student from your former student just to say hello it doesn't have to be refused in all things and so on just a gesture so returning to the question same for the book so many people contribute it takes a village you know this expression it takes a village to live alive but it also takes a village to do a serious project like writing a book I could not write this book without dozens of wonderful people who contributed who changed my views who helped me to see other sides other angles inside and so on I you know I was you know one who comes up to mind this is Thomas Farber who is actually teaches writing here at Berkeley he he helped me I learned a lot about writing from him yeah so it's a lot of a longer stories away but time is limited but just to mention the name you know oh mighty lyrica with that you know I was dating the way we're dating at the time so it was a lovely score at the time and she used to say Edward your book and she was not a mathematician he was a musician but she read every chapter every chapter and she commented and she said she used she kept saying Edward your book was called love and math I see a lot of math but nothing of love so everything has to be love in there you see it's how can I ever be you know yes this is gratitude this is your love yeah but we talk about in our program about writing being a collaborative effort I think it has this misconception that you go off into an ivory tower into a in a corner and right by yourself but even if you are writing by yourself you have all of those people who've come before you and who are they were kind of around me in spirit yeah so I was you know if I was writing here in Berkeley I lived in a tiny apartment at the time on Virginia Street and where my my dinner table doubled as my desk and I was just sitting there many a night you know by myself without the page but we say with a laptop you know so yes but you're right so it's not but those are those are the voices were present or present and they were steering me in many ways yeah a lot of it was just me and the book right for sure right but a lot of kusuma there were crucial moments where it could go this way or that way and that's where our network of supporters guides yeah comes in in writing effective back to the process and I don't know if you've ever thought about this or you can even verbalize it but when you're working on and excuse my naivete about what it's like working on a math problem but when you find yourself working on a math problem struggling with it finding your way and when you find yourself sitting down to write an essay cognitively is there is there a similar process going on or are they completely different well I surely approached it because as a mathematical problem at the beginning because that's all I knew in some sense right yeah so and a lot of that is can be very productive because it makes you it helps you to organize I had notebooks upon notebooks of stuff I even had like every time I would find a nice word I would you know I had like a page with like nice Awards you know like I want to use this one I use this one and especially you know not being a native speaker and I wrote it in English so it was kind of us that was a slight challenge of that too so but also made me appreciate the words more perhaps if I were a native speaker maybe I wouldn't look at those words as this code of middle treasures either so yes so that helps to organize your thoughts so now there is a certain work process which is already in place and then you follow that but then the trick was to then break it up and go and go further go further because otherwise it would be a book I don't think it would touch and I think it has well I mean it's not for me to say obviously but I have received enough feedback and now it's you know in 18 languages and so on so I have a deceived a lot of feedback so it has touched some people there is no denying that it has touched why did it touch it did not my opinion is did not touch because of the words themselves something else came through between the lines and you know it's to try to say from the heart whatever because it's overused at heart if you say heart heart all the time but in this case it was it came from the heart it was a sincere effort I was a very reticent guy you may not you know see that now but I was a very reticent guy I was very closed I was shy and I did not want to open up to anybody you know like even in relationships I would be I wouldn't share information about myself I was very uncomfortable when people have talked about me but my what's really deep inside I don't want to deal with it so but I wanted to open up so how can i I could open up to mathematics I could open up to writing I could allow that was one channel through which I could truly be myself you see and so that's the way in which the experience of writing can be truly transforming transforming and transformative for the writer you enter as one individual and you leave is probably different person thank you for saying that in all of our writing students who are here you heard this from this esteemed mathematician writing is transformative that's what Franco has said yeah I'm not that I'm keeping count but in our conversation you have you've used a number of analogies to make a point and you also do it in the book as well so my question is is this something you're doing as a courtesy for the non math audience yes is that how mathematician I won't ask you to speak you're all math yes okay good that's a very good point which I actually I haven't heard that I want to credit one of my students they they pointed that as well yes very good point I haven't heard this articulate so well which absolutely I am one when I do math my when we do mathematics I think it's universal right when I speak to my colleagues and only when we give presentation at our presentations at our professional meetings and so on we often use analogies because it helps you to understand I mean in an immense sense I mean what is this all about it's about stories we love stories so yes of course yes you could have theorem proof you know corollary and so on kind of but it's boring you know and it's it doesn't really stay with you when it is accompanied by story it's much more as much bigger chance of penetrating through the barriers of misunderstanding so we it is natural to us I think all of us to use a knowledge especially when you do something so abstract as mathematics yeah so therefore for me it was very natural to use that as a tool right but but also I knew that the explaining the details was not really that important but by the way it's also true for for instance for art so you don't want to go and explain every detail of a painting by Picasso you know but you have to you want to give a certain Vantage but you have to give some pointers and which is kind of like a knowledge hmm and I was testing so I was testing them on my guinea pigs you know like my readers the early readers like I meant one of my father was the other reader who was read everything and it was like what do you think of this analogy and some of them I really came out on you know through this process some of them I kind of knew from my study mathematical work but some of them were completely new to me and they also helped me to understand mathematics better than someone's okay interesting interesting yeah well I appreciated them because it really helped me to wrap my mind around some of the theories that you were talking about um you just mentioned storytelling and and you know it's a way to understand things this book is you spin a good yarn you you it's a good story I mean you have your personal story that you tell which is fascinating but you also weave it in with all of your research on Langlands so I'm wondering when you sat down to write this again did you have an idea of I'm gonna tell this story beginning to end did you have a sense of how it would come out questions so that its first of all I knew that I wanted my personal story I didn't not yet know exactly why the reason I thought I should include it is because I had this intuitive sense that people really want like personal stories people can relate because when we share something and it really comes from the heart when there is a sincere you know it's like if you tell a story which is not yours you could use the same words for instance I tell you some story with or you tell me a story you tell me something which happened to you right so I memorize it and then I go and tell somebody there will be difference it's only the greatest actors who can do that you know that most of us it cannot and the other person will know it would totally different reaction when you tell your story and you tell it from the heart people will cry and laugh and laugh and whatnot when somebody else uses the same words not going to have the same effect so I have any two ative sense that personal story is what captivates us and it was kind of clear to me like why because the point is this mathematics is so abstract I talk about these things like you mean you know like a braid groups and so I try to put myself in the shoes of my reader and they'll be likewise well then why should I read about this why there's so many things and the reason why I want to convince them because I want to tell them this compelling story of this guy who grew up in a small town in Russia and he was in love with mathematics he wanted to become a mathematician but they didn't let him didn't let him but he loved it so much that he was able to overcome it so when we get to that point and that is a universal story overcoming obstacles here is journey you know so if you read Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung from whom it really came hero's journey it is an archetypal story over hero which goes out to kill the dragon and he comes back or she you know it could be heroine as well so when we get to that point the reader says ok so what happened next I so guess what so he started doing this stuff see it's completely different if I just started with braids groups and this was my first mathematical problem so if I did not have to suffer through all this this rgo if I didn't have to fight to get to that point where I could work on this you see right but how much is it worth yeah it could be the same as Michaels theorem but who cares who cares but it was earned you see it was earned because I had to fight I had to struggle I had to make an effort I had to overcome and when I did I felt that I earned a little credit from my reader mm-hmm that I could tell them a little bit about the math itself what was it that this guy was so excited about it was this yes right and that's what I appreciate about the book and you even you offer a guide for the reader I don't know if you did this at the end but it very generous of you you say there are certain chapters and you point out the chapters that might be math heavy and I saw those and I made a note and I said I'm gonna skip those but but I didn't I didn't I went legitimate I but I didn't because I put because you gave me that encouragement because the story is still there and I did it and it was a challenge and I felt proud of myself for doing and I want my daughter to read this who's a high school senior who's very good at math but that's another story so I appreciated that and again III feel like I'm asking the same question you're answering it beautifully but did you know how you were gonna layer things were you conscious of okay here's some math more story not that they're separate stories but when you constructed it was were you mindful of that well there were a few sort of milestones there were a few things that I wanted to talk about the language program which by the way you know when I when I start I just started writing so how did it came about I was like I want to write this book in which first of all will tell my personal story and in particular that part which was very important to me which I had never shared overcoming that that obstacle but also to talk about the language program this beautiful archipelago of knowledge which is completely hidden we don't nobody knew about that language by the way this year he got the other prize which is like Nobel Prize in mathematics and he it's kind of in a public isn't in the public domain now it's kind of you can google angle his program you will find lots of articles about it you know six years ago nobody knew outside of math – what the longest program is about and I thought that was scandalous what we have to talk about it so I wanted to talk about this but I wanted to do both and so and I started writing and at some point I actually I went to New York in January of 2012 because I was invited by Columbia University for a semester to be a visiting professor and and that's a great this perfect time because publishing is based in New York so I thought okay so now all the publishers will fight over this manuscript boy was I wrong you know so I threw some friends and so on I got in touch with agents because I only have to first get into an agent it's a very structured thing because go directly to publish it they'd be like no no come on it's kind of like bad manners you know saying you have to go to an agent an agent presents to publishers and so but I always do everything in the wrong way so as it turns out you're not supposed to even write anything you have to first write a proposal and then find an agent and the less you know you write the better because otherwise they get nervous because the agents and the public I've it so long maybe we should stop the video because again it's like it's the best it's a well-kept secret you know in the privacy you see they all want to participate in the project so they don't want to be with this unruly authors who demand Amanda cause it's like no I want it this way and not any other way they don't want to do so the less you have written the better but I already wrote like hundred fifty pages and I didn't have a proposal so they look at this and he said no it's not going to be compared it's not commercial is nobody will buy this book so we pass so nobody wanted to take me on I still don't have an agent by the way you know I didn't even have any language eighteen okay so but some of them said just write it straightforward book about math about the language program then we'll publish it it would be one of the you know popular books in math but the autobiography nobody likes autobiographies you know so luckily there was a guy TJ Kelleher was an editor at basic books which by the way bass books is a fantastic publisher they published a shovel bark which many of you may know and so they published kind of unusual books but it's a very good publisher and so I was lucky to be introduced to him by by a friend of mine Erik Weinstein who knew the TJ and TJ looked at it and he said and he invited me to attend this year he made me an offer on a spot so it so the witch you know okay I'm kind of like a professor now sort of senior figures so I can you know give tell three things say things to students you know like from my experience most important thing is just do what you feel is right I don't listen to anybody and a miracle will happen so this is a miracle because officially you go and the whole the whole publishing world of New York said no we don't want this book Edward we don't want it but I said no I would like it to be like this and guess what a miracle happens and suddenly there is somebody who says I will publish it now if you don't follow through on what you believe is right it will not happen and then you will go and complain about the system or the system is so bad the system is stifling innovation which by the way that's what the system is supposed to do the system is doing your job and you do your job you do something that is yours that's your job you see and the funny thing is when it looks completely hopeless which by the way it looked hopeless to me when I was 16 I worked out and much later it was not such a big deal if I didn't publish this book okay I wouldn't die I was abruptly professor you know I very comfortable living but it happened again when I was you know when my 40s there was a book there was something I wanted to share it was different and people thought many people thought it was not something that would have an audience mm-hmm I did not compromise I I decided to stick to my guns and it worked well and that's a perfect metaphor for the entire story that you tell here I mean that that is the story of all of us this is the point so this is trying to say it is your story for each of you it is your story too now for me maybe it's a bit dramatic okay this guy was not accepting University and so on it's a particular variation on the same one and the same story and each of you each of us is living that story right now so what do you to today in which you you persevere and you push and you don't succumb and you don't compromise but you stick to your guns what is it that you do today yesterday it starts now you know it's not in the next month or next year I didn't see it when I was doing it it so obviously I compromised on some things which I now regret you know going back but an important some important things I did not know friends on the book on the contents of the book on the idea of the book on what is going to be about I did not compromise and I'm so glad I didn't you see compromise I stuck to my guns and so now I see the secret yeah I didn't see the secret so this experience helped me to understand the secret which is to push right right yes yes so to move from the grand and that is the story this is the hero's journey you also share little details of your life for example you learned English from David Letterman not exclusively but can you just talk a little bit about that but you do owe a certain amount which by the way what a great I have that I was never invited to David later it was program but I got the next best thing I was invited to Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report and actually it happened exactly on the day when it was announced that Colbert would take over from Letterman so it's kind of close enough that is online if you want to see that interview but right but Letterman was my hero so I came to America 1989 I was 21 years old and I didn't speak speak English very well well not much has changed since then as you can see but well I really had difficulties so as a crowd well learn English and I remember I was a graduate student at Harvard and one one one evening we came to my planet my place I had the TV so I was very proud of it I bought the TV and he says ok you know there's this program which is very funny it's good David Letterman and we turned it on and I saw David Letterman it's old show on CBS by the way you can find on youtube some clips a single hilarious I sometimes I watch I loved it and I'm not CBS on NBC the old old show and so and I just look at him I said I want on this and I could understand a single word of what he was saying because first of I couldn't understand English very well at the time and he was speaking very fast and there were a lot of colloquial things and a lot of her cultural references so I thought I would be so happy when I finally understand everything this man says and I made it a point to watch him every night it was at 12:30 at night so sometimes I have to go to bed earlier so I would videotape it you know was a create years I had to be ridiculous yeah and I was what I would watch Letterman in the morning with my cup of coffee and I would look through the dictionary like what is he talking about you know so guess what a couple years later Ike I understood what he was saying much better than my american-born friends you know yeah anyway they would let David Letterman thank you yet another person who helped you yes it helped me and you also share things like a Borst recipe in here and not your mother secret but you gave us a different Boris recipes my mother's boards yes and there's a cup trick I mean there's just so much in here and again it's it's ways of explaining concepts so so for example did you know the borscht recipe was gonna go in this book when you sat down to write it okay how did you get to the worst recipes so this i'm explained so I'm trying to explain duality electromagnetic duality so it's a particular it's a it's a very interesting idea that if you take the theory which describes electric and magnetic forces if you look at the mathematic equations if in the mathematical equations you exchanged variables responsible for electric things such as the electric charge and so on with quantity is responsible for magnetic forces you just exchange them the equations will stay the same but it sounds a bit too abstract so I said how do I explain this and I think I was on the phone with somebody and I was trying to explain it a couple of months earlier and ice and then it just came to me I said it is like a recipe in a recipe you may have you know potatoes and onions and then the same amount so if you switch but its own is in the recipe in the text of the recipe then as people still the same so then you if you add a few other things which have the same property then so then when I am writing this I remember that conversation and then of course a recipe of what so then since I'm Russian it has to be Russian dish and it has to be dishes cooked by my mother it's not that ok there we go I have so many other questions I want to ask you can we move a little bit to your writing process do you have to be in a certain place at a certain time what is the ideal writing situation for you yes it has to be quiet it has to be quiet I think but you know like I said I was writing most of it I wrote in a very in my tiny apartment at my at my dinner table on my on my macbook MacBook Air so but sometimes I would listen to me I would into music sometimes I would listen to music so it has to be I think one has to concentrate one has to concentrate what kind of music Oh at that time I was mostly listening to like house music and electronic dance music just kind of funny because some of it like I wouldn't listen to it now if I were writing something but at that time it kind of gave me this boost of energy uh-huh do you listen to music when you're solving a math problem or tackling a math problem not when and likewise with the book only when so at some point it gets to issue skill of actually writing and rewriting so with it it's slightly tedious it could be slightly tedious yeah just kind of honing it you know and improving it and so on that's where music could be helpful but when I am at the creative stage when on the stage of the uncertainty when I am the electron who doesn't know which slit is going to go through I would put I prefer complete silence okay since you mentioned rewriting how is rewriting different how is that a different process for you than writing are you in a different headspace when you're rewriting yes no but that's that's more like that's more because that's more like an effort so this is the thing also which I didn't realize for instance when you make a discovery I didn't realize this think consciously at the time but now I can see it very clearly let's say mathematical discovery so I talk about the most cerebral subject of all now what is what is the process of discovery of new of new equation of a new idea in mathematics it is tempting to say that I gain knowledge then I start applying this knowledge so then it kind of looks like an algorithm so I do this and I do that and the question is what's the difference then between a mathematician Oommen mathematician a computer why wouldn't computer do the same thing and the answer is that actually at the moment of discovery the thinking stops it sounds it used to start now it doesn't sound strange to me but it used to sound very strange because I used to think the more that I used to think that the more I think the more I get but in fact it's the opposite or it is good for some things like rewriting for instance or typing a paper mathematical paper and you have to go through the you know the it is Italian mathematician is beautiful phrase mental tortures you have to go to this mental tortures of thinking and overthink answer but at some point you're lucky to be able to to stop and that's when the idea comes it comes without f kin without effort instantly you know it and it's in it's effortless it is like it's always known it this is some sense it's hard to explain in words precisely because it is not well more you see and so to me that is a difference between the creative stage of writing where in some ways you're just allowing yourself to express yourself or whatever that is there is this magical there is some mystery in it which can never be captured by words or by thinking and so on and that is why I think we are so people who get to writing and so on if you do something real if you if it's a sincere effort one way or another you will feel it I think it doesn't have to be long for like a book it can be something smaller you will feel and this is what I think we love about it and why we come back to it is because it helps us to experience that levity that flow state you know now rewriting for me is not flow state it's more like okay so now technique comes in so now how do I make it better make it more articulate how do I make it more sex thing and so on and do you have collaborators you mention when you're writing on this book writing this book you let people ask people to read okay and they would you know so that was Thomas Farber Thomas Farber was a very harsh teacher for me so mostly when I know there was a moment when I decided I wanted to learn how to write op-eds it's a short form which is very different because they give you a thousand words in the workbook I didn't have any limitations and I remember once and it's something it's so interesting some of that stays with you and it's it's invoked every time you get hit the same territory yeah so he I would send Thomas my friend Thomas Farber I would send him drafts of my opiates such as the ones which you have you have heard and he would say he's an amazing writer and it also one who conceived has my good eye and he said again I see the word very yeah he said you have to prove yourself the text of it says by the time I'm through with you you will forget the word very and this is a very good advice yeah because I just use the word very you see yes I underline very many times yes what is it like working on so you've written and I there's so many more I just had room to include a few writing an academic paper for example Baxter's relations and the spectra of quantum integrable models did I pronounce that correctly okay close enough and you work with other people what is the process are you actually writing together is it part you do part the other person does part it depends I mean I have written I have written 90 papers like that plus two academic books not counting a lot my math how much were mentioned earlier so and I like to collaborate I like to so most of my papers actually collaborations but each time is different it's very interesting how how it's done so it's really hard to look at a common L okay there's no one way my last question and then I want to open it up to the audience is you are a professor you're a teacher do you talk to your students do you have time to talk to your students about writing it do you it is writing well I'll just I'll say do math do math people need to know how to write yes okay absolutely yeah and we are not good at it I mean it and we have a very serious problem in my subject which we kind of keep it quiet for now but I don't know for how long we can keep but we are losing the ability to communicate with each other we have lost ability to communicate with the rest of the world a long time ago and now there is sort of a process to go back which by the way one of the reasons why we have to do it is because we are also losing as a consequence of not being able to articulate something an idea to a non mathematician if you're not able to do that then you could eventually you will not be able to you will not be able to articulate to somebody who works in the difference subfield of mathematics and this is happening so we have now quite serious issue situations where there are mathematical papers where you have groups of people some of them say this is correct and this represents a new crowning achievement and others say this is false or we don't get it and it's kind of a we are at in an in at an impasse in the few places these few situations like that in my subject in mathematics in a way which I think we have never been before and I think the reason is that one of the ways in which we could get out of this situation unfortunate situation is by improving our writing skills and it's that being addressed from from your perspective not enough well we are addressing it right now yes how many math majors are here by the way can you guys raise your hand oh well if you okay good good so you guys it's very important to let right I am hopeful always people we say always horrible so it's horrible because we have not done our job our generation but I am always I always think that the next generation comes it's to people who are here the students they're going to do much better I mean there's no way they won't do better of course there and my my job is to share some of the difficulties of the you know some of the issues that I experienced and some of the things that where I have failed or we have failed as a generation as a group so that they know what not to not to repeat those mistakes right so I feel as though younger people you know they know more okay that's good to hear at this point I'd like to open this up to the audience if you have a question if you could raise your hand and we'll call in if you could speak nice and loud or I may I may repeat the question yes the person in the front row here would you yes yes I know it's a very good point I have to be brief almost out of time but I think yes it definitely can actually change in society for instance in the following way so on the one hand there is a it's very easy to traumatize students learning mathematics by calling a student to the blackboard and saying solve the problem in front of everybody so the student panics he or she is frozen and she just sit down you know you're no good you don't understand that's it and if in fact such experiences if you talk to people directly about it they may not even know they may not remember because it we push we tend to push this kind of unpleasant difficult experiences and underneath in the unconscious but it's still there and it informs us every day in for instance as saying I hate mathematics I'm not good at mathematics and so on so that's one side of it the other side though is that with a with a talented and loving teacher a student can actually solve it by themselves and they have this and this is an incredible when you see that it's incredible when somebody gets it and spinal issues keep the joy is infinite you know it's like I got it and nobody can take it away from me that's where is quality of mathematics that it is not up to discussion it's not up as a matter it's not a matter of opinion is x squared plus y squared is Z squared n bit address theorem that's it right I did it I got it nobody can take it away from me it is so empowering and I have heard many stories of kids for instance from immigrant families who come to this country they don't speak the language so they feel like outcasts they feel that they don't belong and they talk they would tell me that after you know the grown-ups would tell me those stories they'd say but then what kept me afloat would gave me confidence is the math class because I was very good at math and I could do it and that gave me the agency that gave me the power I knew that I was good it's something you see so how do we how do we use that energy how do we I feel like it's such a waste that we are not using this positive energy of mathematics in our classes under using it to empower empower people you know so that's one way in which it could be done and and effectuate change not to mention that our kids will grow up to be informed they will not just take stuff the government or the various you know corporations deal them they will question things because they will not be afraid so that's what the power of mathematics yet untapped but we can do much better other questions yes this is sorry this is a question about mathematical literacy right to make sure everybody can hear that so I have no illusions that you know 90% of whatever or majority of our electorate would know what elliptic curves are specifically I'm not it's not and that's not the goal people know about art we knowing the details people know about music without knowing it not being able to recite by heart you know the names of the pieces of bark will be woven or Mozart and yet they can they know that they exist and so on and they have a certain most of us educate people we have a certain basic understanding of what this is about and that's what I think can be done and should be done in regards to mathematics because after all Mad Max is our heritage is part of our cultural heritage it's just what we have done for you know in some ways I think it's a historical accident we just kind of like took the wrong turn at some point with our math education and there we go like two or three hundred years later we are here but it doesn't have to be this way so for instance in the case of elliptic curve cryptography and the way it was misused today's situation is that he could not even have a conversation with most of our electorate so to speak you know on this because the reaction of most people is unfortunately I don't want to hear about it because it's math and I hate math and I'm not good at it so next subject you know so that's what we have today but imagine a world in which I'm not afraid to speak about it I appreciate the fact that I don't know the details but I have heard something for instance you know in in Biogen physics things like DNA and evolution and elementary particles and the Higgs boson they're very much in the air now that's everybody know what Higgs boson is nobody worried about it you're not afraid you're going to run away if I say he's boson he was like oh my god I have to run away I cannot deal with it but if I say lifted curve most people will run away so why because physicists have done much biologists have done much better job sharing these ideas number one number two it is ostensibly closer to our lives because we are talking about our bodies you know DNA what are we talking about the solar system and atoms and so math.max appears to be very abstract and not connected to reality but guess what it is now through social media through computers through internet it is just as much integrated into our lives as atoms and DNA so there is no excuse anymore not to know and not to end to be afraid because fear is the worst factor right the fear is what allows manipulation and misuse yeah yeah and as you point out in your Google piece that you shared we have time for one more question yes in the back and could you speak up please so where do you see yourself in the future with these two worlds of mathematics and writing I want to it's a good opportunity I wanted to read the quote if I could open it from Sofia kovalevsky who was a trailblazer a mathematician a woman mathematician so she was a Russian born and she lived in the second half of the 19th century and she was a trailblazer in that she was the first woman might be appointed as a professor of mathematics in Sweden and she was the first PhD she was the first editor of a woman the editor of a major mathematics journals really an incredible story but she was also right there you know and so it is really fascinating to me she wrote in this in this letter she says I understand that you're surprised that I can do literature and mathematics at once she actually wrote this I'm not making this out it's really amazing to me many people who had never had a chance to know what path is about and think of it as basic arithmetic consider it a dry and fruitless subject some familiar but in fact it is a field that requires most of all imagination and one of the top mathematicians of this century she was referring to her teacher why shras says absolutely correctly that it is not possible to be a mathematician without being a poet at heart it seems to me she continues that a poet should see what others can see deeper than others and that's the job of a mathematician as well so in that sense who knows what will happen you know ten years ago somebody asked me Edward you will be sitting in the Morrison library in this beautiful place and a hundred people will come listen to you speak about writing having to get out that's not possible so well it's a mystery right listen mister we're here and it is true you are here talking about writing I want to thank the Morrison library once again for hosting us and I want to thank professor Edward Frenkel [Applause]


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