Thursday, August 28, 2014

Math Fact, Math Fiction--First with Jordan Ellenberg, and Next with Stuart Rojstaczer (Appearing September 10, 7 pm, at Boswell)

One of the nice things about hosting events in Milwaukee is that we can draw on authors from Chicago and Madison, and in most cases, this can be done without a lot of expense, meaning the publishers are more likely to go for it if we make a good pitch. It's still not a slam dunk--a first novelist is likely to be rather enthusiastic about the possibility, while a nonfiction academic generally needs more convincing. The irony here is that in most cases, the nonfiction academic, in many fields at least, is likelier to have the more successful event.

I'm still dancing on a cloud from our wonderful mathy event with Jordan Ellenberg, author of How Not to Be Wrong. Perhaps the feeling is lasting longer because I'm still reading the book--how can one not remember what a good time one had when one is holding the book in one's hands? But we're now approaching September and that means a whirlwind of authors, some of whom will be equally exciting. But my mind always thinks about the strange cosmic connections between events (perhaps that's just a function of re-reading The Illusion of Separateness, per yesterday's blog).

For one thing, we've got Stuart Rojstaczer coming, the author of The Mathematician's Shiva, on sale on Tuesday, September 2. Now Ellenberg has no connection to Rojstaczer, but after all, the novel is about mathematicians in Madison (just like Ellenberg is a mathematician in Madison, get it?). Its the story of a famous female mathematician, Rachela Karnokovitch, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, and her son, a professor of climatology (embarrassingly practical from a mathematician's viewpoint) in Alabama. After she passes, the family gathers in Madison. But not just the blood family--literally hundreds of mathematicians want to pay their respect, and a number of them demand to sit shiva with the family.

Karnokovitch's dream of course is winning the Fields Medal, the highest honor a young mathematician can get. But of course she is passed over each year, until she no longer qualifies, and this leaves her a bit bitter. So the question that the mathematician's have is that it might be possible that Karnokovitch might had solved a major mathematical puzzle, one that has had huge amounts of time and resources dedicated to it. And of course it's also the story of a family or Russian-Polish emigres, with all the craziness that can bring.  I really enjoyed the story and it reminded me of the math gossip I used to hear back in college. Really, I was a math major. I don't believe it either.

Publishers Weekly writes: "The ostensible mourners rip up floorboards, hold séances, and even read meaning into a 40-year-old parrot’s squawks, all the while discussing the charms and pitfalls of Eastern European identity and the perpetual shock of life in America. Counterbalancing their antics are flashbacks to Rachela’s childhood flight from Poland during WWII. These passages, presented as excerpts from her memoir, add depth to an already multilayered story of family, genius, and loss."

In a timely turn of events, a woman finally won the Fields medal this year, Maryam Mirzakhani. You can read more about it in this All Things Considered story.

Our event with Stuart Rojstaczer, a native Milwaukeean, was himself a hydrologist, a geologist, and now consults on water policy, or so says his CV. Our event is co-sponsored by the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies on Wednesday, September 10, 7 pm, at Boswell.

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