The Real Problem

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Edward Frenkel thought that a career as a mathematician would provide a refuge from his country's repressive political climate. Instead, it left him out in the cold.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to the SNAP, from PRX and NPR the "Lost Cause" episode. My name is Glynn Washington. And today on the show, just because something shouldn't be done, doesn't mean we aren't going to do it. Now like a lot of people, I hated math growing up, hated it. It was the worst. But SNAP JUDGMENT producer Joe Rosenberg spoke to Edward Frenkel. And Edward had the opposite problem.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Edward Frenkel grew up in the 1980's in Russia just outside of Moscow.

EDWARD FRENKEL: Well, in the former Soviet Union. Now it's called Russia. And it's a small town, industrial town. So it wasn't really center of any kind of intellectual activity. But around the age of 15, I fell in love with math.

ROSENBERG: Unlike other aspects of intellectual life in the Soviet Union, mathematics wasn't controlled by the government or the government's ideology.

FRENKEL: And the only way to go farther and explore more was to become a professional mathematician. In Russia, at that time, there was only one school where one could pursue pure mathematics. And that was Moscow State University.

ROSENBERG: To get into Moscow State University, Edward would have to take a series of entrance exams. But it mostly covered freshman level-math, nothing Edward had to worry about.

FRENKEL: And then, things take an unexpected turn. The first warning shot came in the form of a letter. And this letter came from a correspondence school, and it says come talk to us. If you are applying to Moscow University, we'll give you some tips. So I was like, OK, great. So I take a train. I go to this office, and they direct me to this woman. And she says, what's your name? I say, Edward Frenkel. She says, are you applying to Moscow University? And I said, yes I am. And she says, OK. And what's your nationality? And I was a little started by this. Why is she asking me this?

And I say, Russian because that's what's written in my passport. And she smiles, and she says, uh huh. And what's the nationality of your parents? I say, well, my mom is Russian. And she says, and your father? And my father is Jewish. And she goes, ah ha. And people around me, they all looked at me like I was a terminally ill patient. They kind of look - all averted their eyes. And she says, did you know that you're not going to be accepted to Moscow University? I didn't know that. Why is that?

Because they don't accept Jewish students. I said, well, what do you suggest I should do? She said, well, just withdraw your documents, don't even try because it's not going to happen. My heart sank. I was aware of anti-Semitism in general, but mathematics seemed to be like such a pure profession that me and my parents, we thought that it would be no problem in terms of my ethnicity. And here, I should tell you the story about my father.

ROSENBERG: Edward's father had wanted to be a physicist, but he was denied entrance to the same university, Moscow State, because his father, Edward's grandfather, had been imprisoned by Stalin.

FRENKEL: But there was an interview. There was an interview. And at the interview, he was told that, you are the son of the enemy of the people, and therefore, we cannot take you. So my father had to go to technical school. And he was not able to fulfill his dream of becoming a physicist. But at the end of the day, there is no choice. I have to do it. I have to do it. I have to try. And I know things so well. I am so good. How can they not accept me? That would be absurd. If anything, it made me prepare even harder for the exams because, like, I am going to show them.

ROSENBERG: So Edward applied anyway. And a few weeks later, he took the train back up to Moscow to take the written part of the exam.

FRENKEL: And it consisted of five problems. And usually, the fifth problem was supposed to be so hard that students were not expected to solve it. But I was just so determined that I was able to solve all five problems including that most difficult fifth. So I was sure it was a (Russian spoken), a five, which is like an A. So then it was the oral test.

ROSENBERG: The oral test was a chance for Edward to finally meet his examiners face-to-face. So he took the train back up to Moscow where he was put in a room with 20 other students, and everyone was given two, randomly assigned questions. After he had prepared his answers, all Edward had to do was raise his hand and then explain those answers to one of the test's proctors.

FRENKEL: I was ready, literally, within a minute or two. And so I raised my hand. I raised my hand, but nobody came. It was kind of comical because here you are in this room, 20, 25 students. And as soon as someone raises their hand, the examiner's rush to him or her and start asking the questions. But I'm sitting there, and they looked right through me as if I am not there, as if I don't exist. And at some point, I literally grabbed one of the examiners 'cause passing - he was passing by. And I said, why are you not taking my exam?

And he said, I'm not allowed to. And he quickly walked away. An hour passed by, maybe a little more. By that time, the other students already left, and the exam was over. I'm still sitting there, and nobody's coming to me. Then I see two men entering the room. And they approach the person who was sitting at the front. And that person points at me. That's how I knew that those were my inquisitors. So these two guys sit at my table, finally. And they say, OK, so what have we got here?

And the first question was about a circle inscribed in a triangle. It doesn't matter what the details are, but they immediately ask me, what is the definition of a circle? And I said, a circle is a set of points on a plane, equidistant from a given point. And the guy goes, wrong, kind of cheerfully. Like, he was so happy that he found a mistake. But what could possibly be the mistake? This is absolutely correct definition. So he paused, and then he said, it's the set of all points equidistant from a given point. And that's how it proceeded from that point on.

What is a line? What is a tangent line? What is a limit? What is a function? What is a ratio? Under what conditions this is well defined? Under what conditions this is well defined? What does it mean? But I was like, oh, you want me to answer this question. I will answer it. You want me to answer this question. I will answer it. So felt like I'm just going to do so well, there will be no other way for them but to give me a good grade. And so these two questions probably took almost three hours. And I was getting tired, and it was getting dark. And so, abruptly, they said, OK, we are done with the questions.

Now we're going to give you problems to solve. So they give me this problem, and I realize very quickly that is beyond the curriculum. But, boom, I'm solving it. And he said, oh, are you still working on it? And I'm like, yeah. I'm almost done. And he said, OK, well, you haven't finished yet. Let me give you another problem. And the second problem he gave me was twice as hard as the first one. And, again, he says, oh, have you solved it? And I said, almost. And, again, he goes, let me give you another one. And the last one, the third one he gave me was a killer.

And it was very innocent on the face of it. It kind of - it didn't sound that complicated. So you cannot say, right away, from the outset that they are pulling something, they're doing something unfair. But if you tried to solve it, you see eventually that it is extremely hard. So finally, there is this crushing, knockout punch. Boom. That was the last problem. So then he comes back, and he says, OK, so let's tally the scores. And then he presents his version of the exam. You know, the first question you couldn't answer, second question, well, you said something, but you didn't really fully answer.

You didn't solve your first problem, you didn't solve your second problem. And now you couldn't solve the third problem. So what can we do? We would like to give you a passing grade, but we can't. Can we? We're going to give you an F. That's the only option we have right now. But I still had this slight hope. So I said, can I see my written test because I knew that I solved everything. And when they brought me that written exam, what grade did they give me? It was not a (Russian spoken), not even a (Russian spoken), which is like a B, but it was (Russian spoken). It was a C. They gave me a C for that? It was perfect. I was so proud of myself.

After that, it was like, it's over. There is nothing I can do to fight the system. And no matter what I say, they are going to crush me. So the guy says, are you going to appeal? And I said, no. I would like to withdraw my application. A smile crossed their faces because, you know, mission accomplished. It took us four hours to fail the 16-year-old kid, but, man, it's over now. To really withdraw my application, I had to get some documents back. And he says, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll take you to the office because, you know, by that time, there was no one there. It was already late. And we walked together to the elevator.

And I'm just thinking, this guy may have ended my dream of becoming a mathematician because this is my chance, and he killed it. You know, he killed my dream. And the elevator doors close, and it's just the two of us. There is no one else. And he says, wow, you were so great. You know so much about math. I was very impressed. And I'm just standing there stunned because he's not playing this game anymore because nobody's watching. But I am 16 years old, you know. He's a professor at the university. I mean, what can I say against him? And he says, how come you know math so well? Did you go to special mathematical school?

And I said, no. In my hometown, we didn't have any special schools. He says, oh, maybe your parents are mathematicians. No. They're engineers. And he says, wow. That's really impressive. And then he said to me, I'll give you an advice. There is one school in Moscow which takes students like you, meaning Jewish people, called institute for oil and as exploration. Apply to that school, and they will accept you. And then he leaves me for a minute. He comes back with all my documents, gives me back all my stuff, and he says, good luck to you. And that was it. And I just rode the elevator all the way down to the ground floor.

And finally, I came out of the building. And I was breathing fresh air again. This is summer. And there's this giant staircase in front of the building, and there was almost no one. And then I saw these two small figures perched in a corner of the staircase, and those were my parents who were waiting for me this whole time. So I'm walking down the staircase to meet with them. And I'm holding this file with all this stuff protruding from it. And, of course, my parents realized right away what happened. Yeah. So I didn't have to say anything. They could tell. That was it. That was the end of it.

ROSENBERG: Edward ended up going to the oil and gas school that the examiner recommended, but really it was just an engineering school like the one his dad had attended. It had a small, applied mathematics program, but very little pure math, nothing he really wanted to study. And in a cruel twist a fate, it was just down the street from Moscow State University.

FRENKEL: And having that world so tantalizingly close, this perfect, pure world of mathematics, and longing for it, and realizing now that I may never be there was really a crushing feeling. Like, that's it. The door is closed. You have to do something else. You can't be what you wanted to be. When something miraculous happened - one of the professors who was teaching at that oil and gas school put me in touch with a great mathematician, Dmitry Fuchs.

ROSENBERG: Dmitry Fuchs was one of the most famous mathematicians in Russia, but he was also one of a small group of professors who secretly mentored promising, Jewish students shut out of academia, students like Edward.

FRENKEL: So it was sort of my first audition. He wanted to see how good I really was. And Fuchs gave me my first problem. And here, it's important to understand that it wasn't just some exercise to solve. This was actually a question which no one in the world knew an answer to. And now I was asked to solve it by myself. And that was a very anxious moment for me, I must say. Am I really cut out to be a mathematician? What if I can't do it, you know? Because the thing about mathematics is there is no way of knowing in advance whether you will be able to solve something.

So there was no way of knowing that this problem which Fuchs gave me would take three months, or three years or 300 years. And I was working so hard, I couldn't fall asleep. I was so worked up about this whole thing. And so one day, I'm sitting at home at my desk, I had all these papers clattered in front of me, desperately trying to find the solution. When suddenly, I saw it. I just saw it in a stroke of black magic. It was something that you had to see kind of like a pattern emerging from the papers out of nowhere. And it was just an incredible moment of realizing that I had in my possession something which no one else in the world had.

And my examiners at Moscow University could not possibly take it away from me. It was true just by virtue of it being some objective truth out there because I had found my perfect world in which I would be taken for who I am. And so at our next meeting with Fuchs, he said, what do you want to do next? And I said, I want another problem.

WASHINGTON: Today, Edward is a professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley. To find out more about his journey, we'll have a link to his book, "Love and Math," on our website snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Joe Rosenberg with sound design by Renzo Gorrio. You've reached the end of the episode, but not the end of this journey. There's so much more SNAP where this came from. Scrap the podcast, see pictures, movies, stuff at snapjudgment.org. What? You've got thoughts on the stories you've heard? Join our conversation on Facebook - Snap Judgment, Twitter - Snap Judgment.

And this is not the news. No way is this a news. In fact, it could have been with the uber producer Mark Ristich in college when he put on this polo shirt, sported his new Docksiders and attempted to sweet talk Winona Ryder when she ran from her cab into the hotel, and you would still not be as far away from the news as this is. Mark, bodyguards hit hard. But this is NPR.

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