This story is narrated by Alexander (“Sasha”) Karnokovitch, whose famous mathematics-prodigy mother died when Sasha was 51. It is now ten years later, and he is recalling the circus created by her death. Rachela Karnokovitch was a Polish Russian Jew who had studied under the great Russian mathematician Kolmogorov. [Kolmogorov is famous for many advances in mathematical theory, including some related to random processes and the effects of turbulence.]
It had been rumored that Sasha’s mother, under the initial direction of Kolmogorov and later on her own, had done some breakthrough work on the famous Navier-Stokes equation, which describes the motion of fluid substances. [In real life, one million dollars was offered in 2000 to anyone who could prove that in three dimensions solutions always exist, or that if they do exist, then they do not contain any “singularity” (smoothness). Such solutions would give terrific insights into the phenomenon of chaotic flow. To date, this has not been accomplished, although in January, 2014, a Kazakh mathematician claimed he had done it. Mathematicians have not yet been able to substantiate his proof.*]
[*If you wonder why the “proof” cannot be proven, consider the case of the alleged proof of the “Kepler Conjecture.” University of Pittsburgh Mathematician Thomas Hales claimed to have solved it. But as the New Scientist reported, “the proof was a 300-page monster that took 12 reviewers four years to check for errors. Even when their results were published in the journal Annals of Mathematics in 2005, the reviewers could say only that they were ’99 per cent certain’ the proof was correct.” In 2003, Hales started his own project to get his proof into a format so a computer could verify it. This August, after 11 years, the team working on the computer version announced they had finally been successful.]
Back to the story, a large group** of top mathematicians descend on Madison, Wisconsin to attend the “shiva” or seven-day-long ceremony held by Jews in honor of the loss of a loved one.
[**A humorous article on the Scientific American blog examined possible candidates for collective nouns referring to mathematicians, including one that would be most appropriate for this story: “a proof of mathematicians.”]
Their agenda was not only to honor Rachela Karnokovitch, but to root through her papers if possible, and see if the desired solution to Navier-Stokes was among them. And in fact, during the seven days of the shiva, the mathematicians congregate at Rachela’s house during the day, and work on solving the equation in the evenings.
As the shiva continues, we go back in time, occasionally hearing the voice of Rachela herself as Sasha reads through the memoir she recently sent him. We also get to know Sasha’s family, and some of the mathematicians gathered there. And at the end, we learn what really happened with Rachela and the Navier-Stokes equation.
Discussion: I got the impression that the author wanted to share thoughts about things he was passionate about, but I didn’t think they all came together into a very satisfying story. He wants us to know what Jewish intellectuals had to endure under Stalin, and he wants us to experience what the Polish-Russian-Jewish immigrant community in America is like. He also wants to share his impressions of mathematicians as a group, and his thoughts about the very big difference between “numbers” and “mathematics.” All of this is not uninteresting, and yet I don’t think the plot he devised transcended the anecdotal level. I didn’t feel like I got to know what drove these characters, and even when provided with a hint to their interior lives (as with the case of Rachela), I only felt partially illuminated. Moreover, I felt the final word from Rachela on what drove her to do the things she did sort of contradicted her behavior that preceded it.
Evaluation: I liked this book but didn’t love it. To me, it seemed like the author didn’t go into enough depth about the human aspects of his characters.
Note: You do not have to understand either math, Russian, Polish, or Yiddish to read this book – translations are provided for all when necessary.
Published by Penguin Books, 2014