Greater than the Sum of His Parts

UC Berkeley Professor of Mathematics Edward Frenkel knows how to hold the attention of his 400+ students in the lecture hall [and something tells me it’s not entirely due to his mastery of the subject at hand]. This charisma translates to the screen in his latest endeavor; a foray into filmmaking with “Rites of Love and Math.” Today Frenkel talks with Indoor Boys about the poetry, passion, and power of mathematics. Read on, and just try to keep your interest in the subject from increasing exponentially.

Interview and photography by Anita Stubenrauch

Introduce us to Edward Frenkel. Who are you? Where are you from? What makes you an Indoor Boy?
I grew up in Russia and came to the US after finishing college in Moscow. I was at Harvard for a few years and then Berkeley made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I have been Professor of Mathematics at UC Berkeley for quite a while now. I am a mathematician, and my main job is mathematical research, as well as teaching students. Recently, I have made a foray into another area: cinema. I have co-directed (with a French director Reine Graves) and played the lead in a short film “Rites of Love and Math,” and I have written a screenplay for a full feature film “The Two-Body Problem” with my good friend and wonderful writer Thomas Farber.

Am I an “Indoor Boy?” You tell me! : )

You’ve spoken of math’s inherent beauty and poetry. For those among us to whom math is somewhat anathema, how can that beauty and poetry be made accessible?
This can be done in many ways: books, lectures, interactive games,… I find most fascinating the medium of cinema. Joseph Brodsky, Russian poet, said in his Nobel speech that poetry is “a great accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe.” In my view, the same applies to cinema. The language of cinema allows you to convey ideas in a highly compressed form, so that the viewer can grasp, in a very short period of time, information that may take years to process in other, more conventional, formats.

Assume my last math news bulletin was “1+1=2,” what’s happening right now in the math world I should know about?
Every day dozens of math papers are published, new theories are created, new theorems are proved and perhaps some old conjectures are disproved… It’s a very dynamic and fast-moving subject, the arena of endless struggle of ideas. When you say your last math news bulletin was “1+1=2,” this could be true if you were still living in a cave. Modern technology makes all of us huge suckers for math, whether we want it or not. Think about it this way: we all use Google search, right? And what is the algorithm for ordering Web pages is based on? Math. We use GPS, and again, mathematical formulas make that work. Whenever we pay online, our credit card number gets encrypted, which means that some beautiful mathematics is at play… Math is all around us!

My recent research has focused on the mathematical foundations of Quantum Field Theory, which aims at describing the behavior and interaction of subatomic particles. This is the the most fundamental theory of our universe. And as Galileo has famously said, “The Laws of Nature are written in the language of Mathematics.”

Love [and/or sex] and math are not usually thought of in conjunction with one another. How did you arrive at their union?
First of all, I wanted to convey to the viewer of our film the idea that a mathematical formula could be beautiful, like a poem, a painting, or a piece of music. But how to do this without getting bogged down in details? My co-director Reine Graves and I wanted to approach this in an unconventional way: appealing not to the cerebral, but to the emotional, visceral. Let the viewer “feel” it rather then “understand” it — and if this gets them “hooked,” I’ll then gladly explain to them the meaning of the formula.

Second, I wanted to show the intensity and passion involved in mathematical research. People tend to think of math as a stale, boring subject, and of mathematicians as “book worms” — which couldn’t be farther from the truth. When you try to discover something new, something that no one has ever seen or understood before, you have to be very passionate about it, you have to be in love with it. It’s a war with the unknown, a struggle “to death.” And the formulas you discover really get under your skin — that’s how the idea of tattooing a formula came about.

Love is the realm of intense passion and emotion. So comparing being in love with discovering a beautiful formula seemed like a good metaphor to us.

“Rites of Love and Math” is your filmmaking debut and you’re writing, directing and starring [in the flesh]. What surprised you about the process? How was the experience a departure from your usual day-to-day life?
There were many surprises. First of all, I was surprised how hard it is. Like math, filmmaking is an intense process, you have to be “all in.” It’s a struggle, and you don’t know till the end whether you will be able to express your ideas, but you try as hard as you can…

Second, filmmaking is a team sport — so unlike math, which is a very solitary profession; we do collaborate, but usually with one or two people, not more. In contrast, over 30 people have worked on “Rites of Love and Math.” To succeed, everybody has to be on the same page, be driven by the same spirit… This is incredibly complicated, because there are just so many elements (and so many egos!) that have to be in resonance with each other. It can be very frustrating, but then a “miracle” may happen and suddenly these different voices would come together to create something beautiful and unique… When this happens, it’s an amazing moment which makes it all worthwhile… It was also a rewarding experience for me because it gave me the opportunity to meet and work with some wonderful filmmakers and artists.

There was another big surprise for me, of a different kind. In mathematics there is only one truth, and essentially only one path to reach this truth. My mathematical work is perceived and interpreted in one and the same way by everybody who reads it. Not so in cinema and in the arts in general! There isn’t a single truth, and there are so many different paths to express the truth. Moreover, the viewer is always part of any artistic project, because at the end of the day, “it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

Stills from the film, “Rites of Love and Math.”

Movies about mathematicians and artists often perpetuate the stereotype of an individual teetering on a fine line between genius and insanity. As both an artist and mathematician, how do you feel about that?
You are absolutely right about the unfavorable stereotype of mathematicians that has been created in the mass culture (there is a stereotype of artists too, but it’s more favorable). I think this is very bad for two reasons: first of all, it reinforces the stereotype of mathematics as a boring subject that is far removed from reality. And second, would young people want a career in math or science after watching a movie in which a mathematician is portrayed as an anti-social person on the verge of mental illness? While there exist such people (as they do in all professions), the majority of mathematicians are not like this at all.

In “Rites of Love and Math,” we wanted to go against this stereotype. We wanted the viewer to see the Mathematician as a human being, as someone they can relate to — he is trying to do his best against adverse circumstances, he is in love, he has to stand up for his ideas… The film is an allegory, a fairy tale — so we exaggerate, of course. But there are allusions to many things that are very real: like the moral dilemmas that scientists must face sometimes when pursuing their ideas.

Your film stirred up a bit of controversy – a sponsor pulled support, there were even some protesters at the screening in Berkeley. Can you talk a bit about that?
The film was made in Paris. Fondation Sciences Mathématiques de Paris supported it financially and sponsored the premiere at a wonderful Parisian movie theater, Max Linder Cinema, in April of last year. Since then, the film has been shown at film festivals and other venues, including official competition at the world’s foremost festival of fantasy films in Sitges (near Barcelona), last October, and has received a lot of media attention (see for more details).

In December we had the Berkeley premiere, at Landmark Cinema, showing our film together with Yukio Mishima’s film “Rite of Love and Death” which inspired it. The event was originally co-sponsored by the Berkeley Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and the Berkeley Film Festival. MSRI included the announcement in a widely circulated e-mail. Then, in the days leading up to the premiere, the Director of MSRI received complaints from some mathematicians that our film was “offensive to women.” They demanded, in what was clearly a concerted effort, that MSRI withdraw its co-sponsorship of the event.

I find it ironic that the film was so well received around the world (it had been shown at 3 scientific institutions on 3 continents, and no one ever said that it was “offensive”), but in Berkeley, of all places — with its tradition of the freedom of speech — people were in essence trying to censor it.

Under enormous pressure, MSRI withdrew its co-sponsorship two days before the screening. In effect, this created a lot of publicity for the film: now everybody wanted to see what the fuss was about! So the night of the screening a huge crowd gathered at the movie theater — about twice as many people as there were seats available, and the two films were received very warmly. The event was a success, as you can see from this video clip.

What can we learn from this story? On the surface, most of the complaints were about how the critics perceived the portrayal of the gender roles in the movie: mathematician is a man, and his lover is a woman. Somehow, the critics decided that she is not a mathematician, even though, for all we know, she might well be! The funny thing is that the complaints were mostly coming from people who, by their own admission, hadn’t even seen the film (it’s not a good idea to judge any film by a two-minite trailer).

Underrepresentation of women in mathematics is a real and serious issue (and MSRI has a stellar record in this area, which I greatly admire). But our film should not be misread as germane to these issues. It is unfortunate that a work of art dedicated to the beauty of mathematics was mistakenly placed in this context.

We conceived of “Rites of Love and Math” as an allegory, fantasy, parable. The entire film is symbolic, and the idea is in fact that the female character, Mariko, represents Truth and Mathematics. There are many clues: ‘Mariko’ means ‘truth’ in Japanese; the word ‘truth’ is written in Russian across the painting on the wall — so the Mathematician comes to the “house of Truth” (also, both words ‘truth’ and ‘mathematics’ are feminine in Russian!). If you accept this interpretation, it becomes more clear why the Mathematician dies — he sacrifices himself to the Truth and to Mathematics; why Mariko walks away with the formula and just leaves him dying on the floor; and also it becomes more clear why the love scene is choreographed in this way…

At a deeper level, it seems to me that the complaints revealed that some people (especially, in the US) were very uneasy about the whole idea of a connection between mathematics and love. As Kurt Halfyard wrote in his review on Twitch:

“It may be shocking to some to equate mathematical scribblings to wild and dangerous sex in the 21st century as it was for sex and politics (and patriotism) in the 20th century.”

(Here he was referring to the controversy surrounding Mishima’s 1965 film “Rite of Love and Death,” (also known as “Patriotism”) which got that film banned for almost 40 years.)

My co-director, Reine Graves, herself no stranger to controversy (her previous film “I salut you, Judas” won Pasolini Prize at the Festival of Censored Films in Paris) told me that she took the intense reaction to our film as a good sign. It means that our film has affected people, imparted something on them, made them think… Which was our goal.

Will the controversial feedback affect your future projects?
I hope this experience won’t make me look back over my shoulder, try to anticipate how the viewers will interpret my next film, and try to insulate it from possible criticism. I mean, everyone wants their work to be liked. But I think once you start doing this, you die as an artist… “Rites of Love and Math” was my first film, I had no idea what to expect, how the viewers will react, and in retrospect, this was a blessing. We were just following our ideas and artistic vision and not worrying about the audience reaction. The film was the product of sheer passion and imagination, and I hope that the viewer comes out feeling this.

Russians have a rich history in literature and filmmaking, and historically there has been a Russian point of view which could be characterized as dark, introspective, and passionate, with individuals often at the mercy of fate or forces beyond their control. I’m thinking of Nabakov, Dostoevsky, Eisenstein… Do you see yourself as engaging in that legacy?
This is a very good point. Since I grew up in Russia, I have certainly been influenced by these ideas. So this may help explain the origins of the storyline in “Rites of Love and Math,” and also why I was drawn to Mishima’s film. I have found that in general Mishima’s works seem to resonate more with Russians than with people brought up in the Western tradition.

Cover of "The Two-Body Problem," published by Andrea Young Arts

What’s next for you artistically? Mathematically?
My next cinematic project is a full feature film “The Two-Body Problem,” for which I have written a screenplay with Thomas Farber, a noted author and literature Professor at UC Berkeley. We have published it as a book in September and are now looking for a producer willing to take it up. We have also been working on a stage adaptation with a wonderful theater director Barbara Oliver (known by many as the Grande Dame of Berkeley theater). In both the film and the play, I would like to play one of the lead roles, that of mathematician named Phillip.

I am also continuing doing my mathematical research. The main subject of my current interest is the “Langlands Program,” which I’d like to think of as a kind of Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics, because it connects many seemingly unrelated fields in math and even physics. Robert Langlands, who first proposed these ideas, is a mathematician who occupies Einstein’s office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In my recent work, joint with Langlands and another wonderful mathematcian, Ngo Bao Chau, we try to make new advances in this area. I am very excited about this project.

Indoor Boys

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Rating: 5.0/5 (12 votes cast)
Greater than the Sum of His Parts, 5.0 out of 5 based on 12 ratings

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