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The Mathematician's Shiva (2014)
Stuart Rojstaczer
Highly Rated!

When Rachela Karnokovich dies, her family's attempt to conduct the Jewish mourning ritual of sitting shiva is disturbed by the many strangers who descend on her Madison, WI home. Although she never won a Fields Medal, Karnokovich is considered to be one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. So, the governor of Wisconsin hopes to gain political points by visiting the home of this "badger state" genius. The horde of mathematicians who descend upon the house is even more disruptive, since they are not only there to pay their respects to a hero, but also to search for clues to the solution of a famous mathematical problem she is rumored to have secretly solved.

I am not the only person who enjoyed reading this novel. The jacket is covered in quotes from famous writers and mathematicians saying how much they liked it. The word "big-hearted" seems to come up frequently in these descriptions. Indeed, family is one of the two major themes of the book, and Rojstaczer is able to capture the warmth of such relationships, while not glossing over their difficult side.

Karnokovich's family were Ashkenazi Jews who were treated as enemies of the state in the USSR. It was her undeniably impressive mathematical abilities that saved them and eventually allowed her to defect to the USA where she became a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin. The book includes harrowing tales of her childhood while her father was forced to work in the mines above the arctic circle. More cheerfully, there are plenty of Yiddishisms and "old Jewish jokes". The narrator is her son who was raised to be a mathematician (being told children's stories about the Bridges of Königsberg and little Isaac Newton), but ends up as a meteorologist. However, we get to know not only him and his mother but seemingly the entire family. I am actually amazed at how much I feel I got to know this extended family, uncles and aunts and ex-spouses and long lost children and adopted ballerinas and more in a relatively short book.

The other major theme of the book is intellectualism, of which mathematics is just the primary example. (I include in this category the many references to the anti-intellectualism of America today, which the narrator frequently complains about. Given that Rojstaczer is famously a critic of the problem of grade inflation in America, I suspect this is his honest opinion and not just one he has imagined for the character.) More specifically, it is the problem of existence and smoothness for the Navier-Stokes equation which serves as this story's MacGuffin, though it easily could have been any other intellectual prize. (The million dollars offered by the Clay Institute for the solution of this problem does not seem to be a primary motivator for these characters, though they are well aware of it.)

The Navier-Stokes equation itself even appears in the text, in material derivative form. After this, recognizing that many readers of literature do not like seeing mathematical notation in the novels they are reading, the narrator communicates directly with the reader in what is my personal favorite passage from the book:

(quoted from The Mathematician's Shiva)

Why am I making your life difficult? Because while maybe math is sh*t to you, it isn't to me, and it wasn't to my mother or father. It 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.

The book even spends some time discussing the equation, what the terms mean, and what it is we still need to figure out. Since this occurs early in the book, I mistakenly imagined that there would be a lot of explicit math throughout the book. In fact, there is not. Just the idea of math -- the idea that people can figure things out and want to figure things out by thinking logically -- is a key concept, but the reader need not be concerned with any mathematical details. (Although most of this mathematical discussion is entirely correct, as might be expected considering that the author was a professor of geophysics, I am not certain I agree with some of the remarks the book offers about its significance. In particular, I do not think the solution to the Clay Prize question will tell us whether the Navier-Stokes equation is an exact description of real fluid motion or whether it is just an approximation. In fact, if one accepts that fluid is made of molecules and that those molecules are described by quantum physics then you already have acknowledged that Navier-Stokes is just an approximation, regardless of whether smooth solutions blow up in finite time. Are there any experts reading this who can comment on whether I'm right about that?)

All of the mathematicians we actually meet in the book (including, of course, Rachela Karnokovich herself) are entirely fictional. However, we do read about some real mathematicians. I must admit that I was a bit disturbed that Rojstaczer attributed real achievements to some of these fictional characters. It did not bother me much that Karnokovich is said to have been the first female mathematician in the National Academy of Sciences, because the book goes on to say something about Julia Robinson who really was. But, I am uncomfortable with the suggestion in the book that some of Andrey Kolmogorov's famous work on turbulence was actually done by Rachela Karnokovich who was unable to take credit for her work because of her family's status as enemies of the state. Does anyone reading this know whether there is any justification for this? Is it either known or rumored that he published the work of other mathematicians under his name? If not, then this just seems very unfair to Kolmogorov!

That Rachela Karnokovich was not awarded a Fields Medal is a major plot point of the novel. Various reasons are offered for why she did not receive one, with one obvious explanation being that she was female and that the committee was sexist. So, it is an interesting coincidence that this novel was published in the year that Maryam Mirzakhani became the first female Fields Medalist.

Finally, let me add one more mathematical remark: in addition to the Navier-Stokes problem that the book discusses, it mentions a Boussinesq problem. A note in the book points out that there is no famous problem by this name, but it does not say anything about who Boussinesq was. In fact, I consider him to be an unsung hero in my research area of soliton theory. (For more information, see the footnote on page 50 in my textbook.)

In conclusion, this is a well-written novel about people, about genius and about being an academic in a country where intellectualism is not appreciated that is both funny and touching. I am not quite as enthusiastic about it as the writers and mathematicians quoted in blurbs on the cover, but I am glad I read it and can certainly recommend it to you as well.

Contributed by Tom Lindstrøm

When I came across it here, I was attracted to this book for three reasons: (i) It’s about the mathematical community which I think I know something about, (ii) it’s about an Eastern European, Jewish immigrant community I know very little about, and (iii) it’s set in Madison, Wisconsin, where I spent some of my most memorable years a long time ago.

To begin at the wrong end, I must admit the novel didn’t quite satisfy my nostalgia for Madison. One’s main impression is that it’s a terribly cold place, which I as a Norwegian see as an exaggeration – it can be nasty when strong winds bring the cold weather down from Canada, but winter is relatively short and there are lots of nice places to hide.

The treatment of Jewish customs and traditions I found fascinating and quite touching. By coincidence I had read Anita and Sol Feferman’s biography of Tarski just a few weeks before, and together the two books give a vivid picture of what it was like to be a Jewish intellectual in Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century (Tarski changed his name from Teitelbaum to Tarski and converted to Catholicism, but to no avail; he never found a permanent academic position in his native Poland).

The mathematicians in the book are more unkempt, more socially inept, and more competitive than the ones I know from real life, but they are recognizable, and as this is a satirical novel where very little sacred, I see no reason to be offended and a lot of reasons to be amused.

The book is entertaining, well put together, and well written, but like Alex I have my reservations. Despite the narrator’s disdain for everything American, the ending seemed a little too American for me – it was almost like the ending of a television serial where some characters just evaporate in thin air and conflicts are suddenly resolved in unexpected and not totally believable ways. I also spotted a few inaccuracies such as confusing the two Van Vlecks, father and son, and giving Sofya Kovalevskaya a professorship in Oslo instead of Stockholm (thank you, we shall be happy to have her!) But still an interesting and very worthwhile read!

Contributed by James N. Thomas

I liked this book. I'm constantly in search of more mathematically themed fiction, and, being of Jewish ancestry and having spent time in the mathematical community, I can say that the author presents both--and their considerable overlap--really well. It's not the best book I've ever read, but I like it a lot; enough to read in just a couple of sittings.

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Works Similar to The Mathematician's Shiva
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Continuums by Robert Carr
  2. Gifted by Marc Webb (director) / Tom Flynn (writer)
  3. The Goddess of Small Victories [La déesse des petites victoire] by Yannick Grannec
  4. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
  5. The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
  6. Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum
  7. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel by Amy Sherman-Palladino / Daniel Palladino
  8. The Theory of (Not Quite) Everything by Kara Gnodde
  9. Strange Attractors by Rebecca Goldstein
  10. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee (author) / Chi-Young Kim (translator)
Ratings for The Mathematician's Shiva:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (3 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifGenius, Prodigies, Anti-social Mathematicians, Academia, Proving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians,
TopicAnalysis/Calculus/Differential, Real Mathematics,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)