The true language of love? It's math, says Berkeley professor

Dec 01, 2010 By Carol Ness
All of the action in "Rites of Love and Math" centers on a mathematician and his lover, Mariko, whose name means "truth" in Japanese.

Beauty and truth aren't the first things that come to mind, for most people, when they think about math. Berkeley math professor Edward Frenkel is trying to change that.

He tells his classes in multivariable calculus that one of his goals is to unlock the subject's inherent beauty for them, the truth revealed by a mathematical formula.

And now, the culture itself is his audience. Frenkel has come out with a 26-minute feature film that aims to achieve that goal — but with drama, intrigue, love, sex and a tattoo.

Rites of Love and , which opened at the Max Linder theater in Paris in April, will have its North American premiere tomorrow night (Wednesday, Dec. 1) at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

Even before the screening, it has touched a nerve on campus. The campus-based Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, one of two original co-sponsors of the screening, withdrew its support on Sunday in response to criticism from people who had seen the movie's trailer and found it "disturbing, offensive and/or insulting to women," according to a letter posted online by MSRI Director Robert Bryant. The screening will go ahead as planned.

The film is an homage to Yushio Mishima and follows closely the form and style of the only film directed by the Japanese writer, Yukoku, or The Rite of Love and Death. It is short, silent and acted on a set made to resemble a Noh theater stage. And, like Mishima's, it has only two characters, a man in the throes of an existential dilemma and the woman he loves.

Frenkel wrote, directed and produced the film, along with French filmmaker Reine Graves. He also stars in it — as a mathematician.

Mishima's plot revolved around a question of honor; his main character is an Army lieutenant torn between loyalty to his emperor or to friends staging a coup d'état. His answer is a ritual disemboweling in a suicide pact with his wife, joining their love forever in death. The 1966 movie was suppressed for almost 40 years after Mishima's suicide in 1970, but was brought out on DVD by the Criterion Collection in 2008.

In Frenkel's film, the mathematician faces a quandary familiar to theoretical scientists. He has found, at long last, the of love. But then he realizes that others could use his formula to cause harm — and that he must die to safeguard the world. He saves the formula by etching it into his lover's body.

It's an allegory, Frenkel says.

"Our film is about truth. The formula is representative of the truth about the world, which is what I think about mathematics," says Frenkel. The formula uses a particular language to communicate that truth to the world, he adds.

A professor at Berkeley since he was 28, Frenkel, now 42, is known for his work on symmetry and duality in math and quantum physics. He made the film in 2009 during a sabbatical in Paris as recipient of the first Chaire d'Excellence award from the Fondation Sciences Mathématiques de Paris.

Rites of Love and Math grew out of his conviction that math has become too divorced from the arts and humanities in modern culture. A film, he thought, could help reconnect the public with math's ideals.

Also, Frenkel says, "I think there's a stereotype in the culture. Films like A Beautiful Mind and Pi show mathematicians as social misfits, people on the fringe of mental illness or mentally ill. When I look around at my colleagues, I don't see that."

He set out to create a different image of a mathematician as someone who is fighting for ideas, who is in love.
Introduced to Graves, the two collaborated — and when they discovered the recently re-released Mishima film, they knew they'd found their inspiration.

"Mishima created the aesthetic language we needed," Frenkel says. "It was a moment of revelation."

In the film, an unusual method is used to hide and preserve the magical formula.

The film took 30 people to create, requiring the kind of teamwork foreign to a mathematician used to working alone or with one or two collaborators. It was shot in three days.

Frenkel, who had never acted or directed before, found himself learning on the job.

"It's not like mathematics where everything is planned. There are all kinds of surprises. You have to learn to embrace it," he says.

About 400 people — half of them mathematicians — showed up for the world premiere, which was sponsored by the Fondation Sciences Mathématiques de Paris, one of the film's funders.

Since then, it has played at festivals in Spain and Paris, and at several math and theoretical-physics centers, including the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara and the Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences of Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan.

The Berkeley showing is special, says Frenkel. "It's my town, it's where I have my friends, my students, my colleagues."

And as the home of the Free Speech Movement, he adds, "It's a place I feel comfortable showing the film. It's unconventional — and controversial even here."

The controversy bubbled up after the MSRI posted information about the screening and a link to the trailer on its website on Nov. 10. On Monday, the posting was replaced by a letter from Bryant explaining his withdrawal of the institute's support.

He had received emails from people who had watched the trailer and saw it as "depicting a male fantasy of sexual domination of women" and "sending a message the men do mathematics while women are reduced to passive sex objects," Bryant wrote.

The controversy, he added, revealed gender issues in mathematics "that are not being addressed."

Frenkel's response: "I regret their decision, which will be viewed by some as a form of prior censorship. I do, however, understand that MSRI has been subjected to great (if inadequately informed) pressures."

Since the film is only just becoming available in DVD, he concludes that the complaints come from people who have seen only the two-minute trailer. And in any case, he adds, the film is an allegory in which the female character represents the truth and mathematics, "to which we mathematicians (male and female) dedicate our professional lives."

The film was warmly received at all of its showings, he notes, and has been featured in scientific publications.

"At none of the showings in Europe and Asia and in none of the publications were there any suggestions that the film was in any way 'sexist' or offensive," Frenkel says.

He praises MSRI for supporting women and minorities in mathematics and says he considers their underrepresentation a serious issue.

But his film, he says, "should not be misread as germane to these issues. It is unfortunate that a work of art dedicated to the beauty of mathematics is being mistakenly placed in this context."

The screening of both short is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley, with Berkeley Video and Film Festivals as its sponsor.

While Frenkel forges ahead with teaching and research on subjects like "nonperturbative effects and dualities in QFT and integrable systems," the experience of making Rites has left him eager to create another film. He and English professor Thomas Farber have written a screenplay, published as The Two-Body Problem, and are working on a theatrical adaptation, Frenkel says. Their goal is to make it a film.

For the first staged reading, on Nov. 21 in Evans Hall, Frenkel played a main role — a mathematician, of course.

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User comments : 14

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1.3 / 5 (12) Dec 01, 2010
My experience is, most of people tend to hate the math...;-) The cold, strictly formal thinking is traditionally considered contradicting the intuitive thinking, trust (belief) and/or emotional feeling typical for love, instead.
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 01, 2010
Spoken like someone who never learned math, or science for that matter.

Nature speaks to us in mathematical terms. That's great if you know how to speak her language, because mathematics gives you profound insight into the core workings of physical reality, and allows you to make theoretical predictions to ten or more significant figures. But if you don't speak that language, nature remains incomprehensible to you, and all you'll ever achieve in science will amount to nothing more than huge humid loads of smelly verbiage on science websites.
1.8 / 5 (15) Dec 01, 2010
Albert Einstein stated that "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

Richard Feynman stated that "Physics is to mathematics like sex is to masturbation."

But some anonymous dick still thinks the opposite. Umm...
1 / 5 (1) Dec 01, 2010
It's also sending the message that tattooing is cool, which it is not. Thus, I too withdraw my support for this film despite liking the premise.

It's also sending the message that it's okay for a man and a woman to be alone in a room and do absolutely nothing together. An affront to nature! I doubly withdraw my support, with a cherry to boot!
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 01, 2010
You can parrot great minds all you like, Zephir, it doesn't change the fact that your empty condemnation of mathematics is simply that of a gimp condemning foot races: you know nothing of what you speak, and your own impotence is the true source of your derision.

At the level of Einstein and Feynman, a lot of physicists begin to mistake mathematical expressions for the things that they represent in reality. But until and unless we arrive at a complete formula of a unified field theory, it's important to realize that our current mathematical models are missing something crucial. That's why they said those things.

But they sure as hell didn't mean to discourage aspiring physicists from learning the language of mathematics, because without it, you can't tell whether any idea has the first whiff of deep merit, or whether it's just another pretty face in the crowd.

But you embrace your own ignorance like a drowning man embracing a block of concrete. Consider these on your way down:
3.7 / 5 (6) Dec 01, 2010
The highest form of pure thought is in mathematics.
- Plato

The mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry, and limitation; and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful.
- Aristotle

The laws of Nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God.
- Euclid

If I were again beginning my studies, I would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics.
- Galileo

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.
- Albert Einstein

One reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other sciences, is that its propositions are absolutely certain and indisputable, ... How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality.
- Albert Einstein

Mathematics takes us still further from what is human, into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual world, but every possible world, must conform. - Bertrand Russell
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 01, 2010
It is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms, for, as has been remarked, it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life, and these consist only of processes involving exceedingly large numbers of atoms. Furthermore, it is very difficult to modify our language so that it will be able to describe these atomic processes, for words can only describe things of which we can form mental pictures, and this ability, too, is a result of daily experience. Fortunately, mathematics is not subject to this limitation, and it has been possible to invent a mathematical scheme - the quantum theory - which seems entirely adequate for the treatment of atomic processes; for visualization, however, we must content ourselves with two incomplete analogies - the wave picture and the corpuscular picture.
- Heisenberg
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 01, 2010
Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.
- Bertrand Russell

If there is a God, he's a great mathematician.
- Paul Dirac

One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulas have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers.
- Heinrich Hertz

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.
- Wigner
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 01, 2010
"Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the TROLL-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried 'Aure entuluva!""
1 / 5 (9) Dec 01, 2010 know nothing of what you speak..
Reality is composed of dualities, which is difficult to understand without particle model of Universe. In particle systems the energy is mediated with both transverse, both longitudinal waves. What we are considering real is just the part of reality mediated with transverse waves, like density fluctuations inside of random gas: we cannot see the gas, only density fluctuations of it, which are behaving predictably and formal rules can be applied to it.

So we can get new insights with thorough consecutive analysis of formal models, which is the way, which mainstream physics follows by now. But many other insights can be revealed with intuitive holistic analysis of many observations at the same moment and I'm just using the free space, which mainstream physics has left for it with its one hundred years standing adherence to formal approach.
1 / 5 (9) Dec 01, 2010
Important point here is, both approaches are dual and none is prevailing. From emergent nature of particle duality follows, the era of formal physics will be alternated with episodes of intuitive understanding and both approaches will converge mutually. The intuitive approach usually enables to develop new formal models, but when the number of formal theories increases, new insights could be based solely on background of formal models, too. Currently the physics is passing through period, when increasing complexity, fuzziness and number of formal models opened the way for intuitive postulation of new general insight into reality, based on emergence concept.

The second dual way, slightly less general and more formal one will be based on introduction of concept of extradimensions. People should understand, only free void empty space is three-dimensional object - every solid body composed of many points with high degree of freedom is actually highly dimensional artifact.
not rated yet Dec 05, 2010
Based off of studies, real men are better at math (assuming you feel a real man has large amounts of testosterone). Now, let's step to the 21st century where women are equal and men are being stripped of their manliness as society is changing. Many blue collar jobs are disappearing and many of these guys are "alpha male" types looking to find work (social scientists suggest men with more testosterone are more likely to work blue collar jobs. Those with more opportunities are usually successful white collar individuals). The effects on birth rates of "alpha male" men due to society influence on this are yet unknown, and given the current population, probably not a huge deal in retrospect to science/math.

Different maths activate different regions of the brain. Since we aren't all hardwired the same, where is the argument? And let's step outside of math, someone could be great at memorization/phonics but be terrible at math. He (and now she) sure could have something to offer society..
1 / 5 (1) Dec 06, 2010
..One reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other sciences, is that its propositions are absolutely certain and indisputable..
This is just the weakness of math: when reality becomes splited into many time arrows at short and/or large distances. The reality is always temporal, which means, formal results derived with math will be always violated and as such approximation of reality.
...real men are better at math (assuming you feel a real man has large amounts of testosterone)...
The stereotype of mathematicians is, they're weak and freaky nerds with poor relations to women, instead. Do you consider Sheldon Cooper from T.B.B. as a real man?
4 / 5 (1) Dec 07, 2010
Dorkoids, shhhhh its math and sex! why complain?

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