Embrace the Mystery

The final "text" for the course: the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, the story of Larry Gopnick, a physics professor in 1967 Minnesota.  It's pretty much the Book of Job for modern times--a series of misfortunes befalls Larry and he seeks answers from his rabbis.  There are none, although the second rabbi's story about the goy's teeth is illuminating if you think about it correctly ("helping people couldn't hurt"). 

I actually don't have much to say about this film that hasn't been discussed in other contexts.  There isn't much new mathematics here. There is the obvious connection to the uncertainty principle (literally since Larry teaches quantum physics, but also figuratively as the plot unfolds).  Probability plays a role that we haven't explicitly seen before, but it's fairly minor.  Larry's brother Arthur, a (closeted) homosexual living with them, has written the Mentaculus, a probability map of the universe. 

a spread from Arthur's Mentaculus

a spread from Arthur's Mentaculus

Since this is the end of the course, I thought I'd just write about my general feelings about it, rather than hammer away at the film (we've had enough epistemania).  I taught my first class in the spring of 1991.  I was 21 years old and when I went in to give my first lecture, I was so nervous my hands were shaking as I opened the box of chalk.  I was younger than a few of my students (the ones who had put off the class, their last graduation requirement, until the final semester).  It was rough, but I got better and now I don't worry much about walking into a room of 600 to deliver a lecture.  When I set out to earn my Ph.D., my goal was to be a college professor.  Sure, I love mathematics and research, but I always pictured myself lecturing about the subject I've loved since my first grade class cheered me on when I solved a difficult problem correctly at the overhead projector (I was able to write the number 8 with tally marks).  I never tire of teaching calculus, one of the most significant intellectual achievements of the last 400 years.  Get me started talking about topology and I won't shut up.

But this class.  This has been the most rewarding and intellectually stimulating teaching experience I've ever had.  For that I have to thank my co-conspirator, Eric Kligerman, and our remarkably thoughtful, brilliant students.  I was on research leave this year, working on a book and some other projects, but I taught this class anyway because I thought it would be so fun.  It didn't even feel like work.  I love to read, of course, but this class "forced" me to read things I probably never would have picked up (Woolf's To the Lighthouse, for example).  Looking for mathematics embedded in the structure of texts got me to think deeply and critically.  I found a Cantor set in Kafka's The Great Wall of China; I'm even working on a paper about it.  I finally understand the precise mathematical statement of the Uncertainty Principle (well, sort of; if nothing else I have embraced the mystery). 

Isn't this what we all imagine when we think of a university class?  A small group of engaged individuals tackling tough material.  Conversation so stimulating you hardly notice that three hours have gone by.  A bit of sadness when the last session is over.

So, what does the future hold for us and this course?  Unclear.  The Honors Program director has asked if we'd be interested in doing it again next spring.  We are willing, provided we can work it out with our departments.  In these days of efficiency, we may be needed elsewhere.  But I can assure I will always keep it in the back of my mind, looking for connections and new pieces of literature to view through a mathematical lens. 

For now, summer school looms.  Thanks for reading the chronicles of our little experiment.