Monday, September 15, 2014

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

The Mathematician's Shiva
"…smart people do stupid things far more often than most people realize."

This beautifully conceived novel revolves around the death of a world-class mathematician and the resolution of a proof about turbulence, or the chaotic movement of air and water in the atmosphere during a hurricane.
"Actually, it is more than this. The big D in the Navier-Stokes equation is called the material derivative, and it refers to watching velocities of fluids change not from a fixed reference frame but from one in which you are riding with the storm. When I think of Navier-Stokes, sometimes I imagine myself as a Lilliputian in a tiny canoe that has been lifted up and tossed high in a fun-house mirror. I watch as the fluids careen against and flow around me."
Wouldn’t it be great if the turbulence in our lives could be described and defined and nailed down with scientific precision? We could coolly assess a situation and recognize just when things are going to fly out of control, in which direction, and with what force.
"Tornados are a good metaphor for how bad things happen in our lives. They build from small disturbances that usually don’t mean a thing and almost always dissipate. But somehow one particular random bad event attracts others, and all of them together grow and attract more nasty stuff. Once it gets to a critical size, the odds of it growing even larger are no longer remote."

Rachela Karnokovitch was the stuff of legend--a brilliant mathematician immigrant to the United States. Born in Poland and raised in Siberia, she escaped to the United States in advance of her husband and her child and was welcomed with open arms into the IV League academic community. However, she preferred the chill of Wisconsin rather than the warm Princeton climate. She hated and derided any modifier to her genius, e.g., female mathematician, though the rarity of that made her even more precious, at least in the eyes of her husband and son.

Could there be a more unique premise for a novel than the funeral of a genius mathematician rumored to have held off dying in order to solve a major problem? This funeral gathers to itself a constellation of weird but bright individuals all circulating about that star of genius to see if the here-to-fore unannounced solution to the problem is anywhere apparent in Rachela’s papers. They sit shiva in her house for seven days. They search the office, walls, and floorboards of her house. They eat the food offered by neighbors, and drink continually. They generally make themselves a nuisance, though not without mathematician jokes, academician jokes, and a gradual but reluctant acceptance of reality.

In searching for the solution to the math problem, her son comes across Rachela’s diary. Rachela’s remembrances interspersed with shiva-sitting prompt her son to consider the big social questions that face us as humans:
"Our capacity for love isn’t like a gallon jug that you fill up from a rest stop as you take a drive across the country. It can swell, and sadly, it can shrink. Less is not more. Less is less, and more is better, although I can’t say that I fully understood that at the time of my mother’s death. I’m a whiz at science and math. In matters of people, I am indeed a slow learner."

This is a first novel, though it does not read like one. It is a profound meditation on life’s large questions, on math, on academia, on love and marriage. It is told with humor, pathos, honesty, and the understanding that long experience and large intellect can bring. The writing is graceful and mature and the the author instinctively seems to understand the requirements of fiction. We readers can follow anywhere, even to a funeral, as long as it has passages like the mathematician Rachela as a child in Siberia encountering a bear as she scoured the woods for lily bulbs to supplement her inadequate diet.

I was offered a copy of this book by Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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