A mathematician's shiva

The Clay Mathematics Institute formulated seven so called Millennium Prize Problems in 2000, each worth a million dollar. One of them is the Poincaré conjecture, solved by Perelman in 2003. Among the remaining problems one is concerned with Navier-Stokes equations. These describe the breeze and turbulence in fluid dynamics. Engineers can solve the equation assuming certain conditions by using numerical techniques but a full theoretical analysis is still missing. How sensitive is the solution for small perturbations? Do stable solutions exist? The Kazakh professor Mukhtarbay Otelbaev claimed to have cracked the problem in 2013. Soon an error was detected in his arguments, and although he claimed that could be easily fixed, he is still trying to.

The author of this novel is a geophysicist and was a professor at Duke University (NC). He is born in the US, but his parents, being Jewish fled Poland because of WW II. This is a clear link with the setting of this novel.

The main character Alexander `Sasha' Karnokovitch is a geophysicist whose job is to take measurements in the eyes of hurricanes, i.e., physically experiencing and measuring the solutions of the Navier-Stokes equations. The story is about Sasha trying to manage the shiva (a Jewish week of mourning) after his mother died. The mother, Rachela Karnokovitch, was born in Poland, experienced exile to somewhere above the Arctic Circle after the Russian annexation of her country. However, because she excelled in mathematics, she was later allowed to study with Kolmogorov in Moscow. During a conference in Berlin in 1951, she defected to the West and later emigrated to the USA. With her reputation, she was offered a professorship in Princeton, but she refused preferring a colder climate, presumably better for doing mathematics. She developed a very strong character fighting her way though life and maintaining herself in a masculine environment. She is characterized by Sasha's description: `She never needed a microphone' and when she calls him to hurry home and drive faster because she feels the end is near, he says that he is doing the best he can because he is already driving at 95 m/h, whereupon she answers `I am not asking how fast you are driving. Drive faster'.

When Rachela died, the family gathers at her house: Sasha, his father, also a mathematician (who divorced his wife 15 years earlier), uncle Shlomo, and Anna, a Russian ballerina whom Rachela had helped to defect too. However, rumor has spread that Rachela had solved the Navier Stokes Millennium Prize Problem. As a consequence, mathematicians from all over the world fly in and are accommodated in a nearly hotel but insist in sitting the shiva in the house during the daytime. They are mainly discussing the possibility to detect some clues for the solution of the Navier Stokes problem. Cupboards and drawers are turned inside out, a session is organized summoning the spirit of Rachela, and even breaking up the floor and analyzing the utterances of the parrot are among the techniques that are exhausted. However to no avail. Since most of the scientists are also immigrants from former Eastern Europe, a plethora of dishes from `the good old days at home' are served and alcoholic beverages are amply available. When Rachela is eventually buried, the ceremony is attended by the Governor and Dolly Parton is singing at the event.

All this will make you expect a funny story, and it is funny indeed. You risk many a giggle if you venture to read this secretly during a boring meeting. However, it also tells about serious problems about the unfortunate things of life like the suffering of Jewish scientists in the USSR, how the work of Rachela was hushed up in Russia after her defection, Kolmogorov publishing work that actually was done by Rachela, why she never got a Fields medal for which she was eligible, how she had to stand her ground as a woman in a male environment, etc. So, besides the fun elements, there are also many very recognizable situations that are very close to reality.

I am not disclosing here whether or not Rachela did solve the Navier Stokes problem, but I do mention that there is a happy ending on a romantic level since Sasha, also divorced, eventually finds happiness.

It is certainly a novel I can recommend for mathematicians. The non-mathematician will also enjoy it, but may have more problems to draw the subtle line between the realistic and the caricaturally exaggerated elements of the mathematical habitat. There are many Yiddish, Polish, and Russian words that the reader has to get used to, but of course these help to evoke the subculture of the emigrated scientists.

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This novel is about a deceased female math professor, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, who allegedly has solved the Navier-Stokes millennium problem. During the week of the shiva, her son tries to manage the swarm of fellow mathematicians that fly in in the hope to find some clues about the solution for the Navier-Stokes problem.

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978-0-14-312631-7 (pbk)
16.50 €