Warm up your heart and mind with ‘The Mathematician’s Shiva’

First Posted: 1/27/2015

I am neither Jewish nor a math-lover. In fact, anything more complicated than long division makes me break out in a cold sweat. Yet I fell madly in love with geophysicist Stuart Rojstaczer’s debut novel, “The Mathematician’s Shiva,” and you will too.

This multi-layered novel tells the comical, warm, and poignant story of what happens when a brilliant mathematician, Rachela Karnokovich, dies. Her only child, Sasha, wants only to mourn her passing quietly and with the dignity she deserves and to come to terms with her influence on him and his own rather barren life. But rumor has it that Rachela has taken to her grave the correct proof of an equation that has defied solution for a century. Enter a gaggle of zany fellow mathematicians – Rachela’s friends, colleagues, and rivals – who are determined to either find her proof or solve it themselves during the seven days of her shiva, even if it means tearing up the floorboards of her home or communing with Pascha, her surly African gray parrot.

The setting, which mostly alternates between Madison, Wisconsin, and the Soviet prison camp above the Arctic Circle where Rachela spent her early childhood, is all about cold. If you think our winters are uncomfortable, set against the sub-zero temperatures in the novel, they’ll seem positively balmy. In one of the chapters of her autobiography, which the author invents as a way to give us Rachela’s back-story, Rachela explains that cold and hunger were vital to her development as a mathematician.

“‘I needed deprivation to make me appreciate every little gift, every tiny increment…of understanding while solving a problem….This is what war gives, a life of the mind that would sustain me almost always.’”

The setting may be bone-chilling, but the wildly eccentric characters give it warmth and make “The Mathematician’s Shiva” a delight to read. In what amounts to a family saga, we are treated to loving and beautifully rendered portraits of not only Sasha and his mother, but also of his father, his adorable Uncle Shlomo, and others Rachela has taken under her wing during the course of her life. Of course there’s also the nutsy crew of mathematicians, whose presence helps create a richly comic tapestry of conflicting personalities and motives.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Navier-Stokes equation, which is a sort of non-human character, since its mystery lies at the heart of this book. First of all, this equation is real. It is used today to describe, as Sasha explains, “the wildly erratic dance of fluids, turbulence.” We learn that while scientists and mathematicians regularly use this equation, no one, as yet has been able to develop a proof – an explanation that correctly demonstrates that the Navier-Stokes equation works in every situation, is always true. So thorny is this problem that a $1 million Millennium Prize was created in 2000 to anyone who correctly solves the proof. So far, in the real world, no one has.

So…we have a terrific story, great characters, and a mystery. All of these would have been more than enough to satisfy me as a reader, but Stuart Rojstaczer, through his descriptions of how a mathematician’s mind works, gave me an unlooked for gift: an appreciation for the sublime beauty of higher mathematics. Also, Sasha does a wonderful job of quelling the math-phobic’s understandable worries about trying to cope with the math in this book.

As he says, “(Math) is like breathing to us, and to ignore math in this story would be akin to listening to Frank Zappa without ever having taken hallucinogens, an incomplete experience.”

He also reassures skittish readers like me by urging us to think of the language of mathematics as “the equivalent of teenage texting, but for geeks.”

I also enjoyed learning more about the rituals involved in a shiva. Although I’ve attended several, I didn’t know much about their purpose or process. Reading “The Mathematician’s Shiva” made me think that every religion should have such a beautiful and psychologically comforting way to honor the dead and cope with grief.

This is a wonderful book on so many levels that to fully describe its riches would take more space than I have here. All I can say is, “The Mathematican’s Shiva” made me feel happy and maybe even a little smarter, and it certainly kept me warm, emotionally and intellectually. So brave the cold and go out and get yourself a copy!

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