Wikinews interviews Israeli mathematician and writer Aner Shalev

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Aner Shalev is an Israeli mathematician and writer born in 1958 in Kibbutz Kinneret, Tiberias. Currently Shalev is a Professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Einstein Institute of Mathematics.

At the moment Shalev is in Levico Terme, Trento, Italy for a conference. He was interviewed by Wikinews.


Aner Shalev

What are you going to talk about here in Levico?

I called it Character, walks and words. There is a whole topic which is called asymptotic groups theory. There are groups which express the symmetry of some structures. Studying groups is a bit like studying symmetry. It's very beautiful I think. And then when you do it in an asymptotic way is like you don't look at the small details. It's like from the sky. You look at the general patterns. And there is another topic which is very important in mathematics which is called representation theory. So I will mainly talk about how to use a representation theory to solve all kind of problems and conjectures in asymptotic groups theory.

Why did you choose to study mathematics?

First of all because it was beautiful. When I was ten my father already showed me some stuff in mathematics and the beauty and the imagination was quite apparent. I also like the freedom in mathematics. If you study physics or chemistry then you should describe the real world. But in mathematics you can build your own structures. You can walk in worlds created by the imagination of people. You're not committed to the real world. It's almost like God to some extent. You can create worlds, you can study them. I think it's a combination of the beauty, of the imagination, of the freedom.

Many people, and many students, dislike math. Why do you think it is so?

First of all I think maybe they have bad teachers, which is a problem. You have to have very good teachers in mathematics if you really want to enjoy and to succeed in it. Probably some people mainly think about the scientific part of it – you have to be accurate - and they see less these elements of the freedom, and the imagination, and creation. Maybe they don't like the precise nature of mathematics. Also when I talk mathematics I notice the language is very important in mathematics and I actually notice that many times people fail in mathematics because they don't know how to write a composition. They have ideas but they cannot formulate them in the right way.
Actually I find many connections between mathematics and literature because almost all the thing I told about mathematics are also seen in literature and in writing because when you write you can describe the real world, but you can also create worlds of fiction. So you have imagination, you have total freedom, you can invent characters, you can invent all kind of development and surprises and this kind of end of story or another. Also the language is important in writing and in literature. So in a way people often don't know how to combine the two fields. It could look like almost the opposite: literature is kind of arts and mathematics is science but they also see a lot in common and there where mathematician who were writers. For example the most famous is Lewis Carrol, author of Alice in Wonderland.

You're not only a mathematician. You also wrote two collections of short stories and a novel. Why did you begin to write?

When I was quite young I was interested in psychoanalysis and in dreams. I was trying to interpret my dreams. I started to write down my dreams. And then I noticed that I cheat a little bit when I write them down. Sometimes I make them more pretty then they were actually. So instead of documenting the dreams it gradually became also like adding creational elements, and I think that somehow through writing my dreams I gradually came to writing, also poems, but mainly stories.
I'm a little bit inspired by dreams but when eventually I started to write more seriously I was more interested in structure which also .. a bit like mathematics in a way.. for example my first book is called Opus 1 .. a collection of four long stories with musical structures. The first part is called Legato and the second part was called Staccato. In the legato part the sentences are very long and without breaks almost like stream of consciousness. In the staccato part it's like a music: a lot of break, very very short sentences. It was a bit experimenting connections between the language and the music and the psychology of people. In the second book I made another experiment. It's a book of opening, Overtures I called it, and there is no end to the stories. There are seventy beginning of stories without ends. In the novel Dark Matters I think what interested me in the structure was two thing: simple narrative and email. It keeps changing between narrative and email. Another thing was two different time scapes: one goes very slow and one goes very fast and they almost kind of meet in the end. It's a little bit like Achilles and the turtle. ... love story and romance and surprises and tragedies and all this but also this structure interested me a lot.

Why did you choose this particular structure?

When I tell stories I don't like that everything will be clear from the beginning. I like that something will be a bit of secret, or even unreliable narrator: someone tells something and first you trust him but then you read more and you become thrilled by everything. I think by using emails on the one hand which are more the voice of the woman Eva and narrative which is more the perspective of the man Adam, I kind of confront them, their different perspective and then kind somehow you can see the distortions in the way the story is told. I think that in this kind of structure there is a very gradual clarification of the relationship and the forth going on.

Why Adam and Eva?

I was somewhat influenced by two stories. One the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the first man and first woman, being deported by Eden. But I was also fascinated by the scientific story of how the world was created which is related to astrophysics, to the big bang and to the concept of dark matter in the universe and dark energy. These are very central concept in cosmology, in astrophysics now, that most of the world we cannot see because it's dark matter and most of the energy we cannot understand because it's kind of a dark energy which is anti-gravitational and causes the universe to expand very rapidly and accelerate. I was trying to implement it on relations between man and woman. It's a bit like pessimistic ending. In all the book there is kind of this very subtle play between gravitational forces like also erotic, attraction between man and woman but also repulsion forces. I think I was influenced by astrophysical theories and I was trying to check if they can apply in love life and relationship between man and woman.

In Italian the book was renamed Dove finisce New York (Where New York ends). Do you like that title?

Yes, I think it is very nice. I thought it quite powerful. Usually I don't like people make changing but in this case I think it's quite powerful and it turns out it is a quotation from the book: the hero Adam tells Eva that he wants to show her where New York ends.

The novel was published in Hebrew in 2004 but takes place before September 11th because the Twin Towers are still there. Why? Is there a particular reason?

Actually I started to write it before the attacks, it's a good reason (laugh). I started to write it a bit earlier but it took some time. Actually there was quite a dramatic story.. I was in New York during the attack – I gave some lectures in New York and in Yale University - and actually I had already planned in the book a visit to the Twin Towers – which was one of the reason for my visits. I wrote a draft of the chapter and then I wanted to go the Twin Towers to experience it and to see the draft was accurate more or less and what you see from upstairs and all this ... The same week when I planned to visit there was the disaster. For a long time I thought whether I should mention what happened and then I thought... there are some hints about a time when the Twin Towers don't exist anymore but I didn't want to write about the disaster, not to abuse it.

Do you have other literary project for the future?

I started another book, but it's in a very early stage so probably it will take some time. But yes, I have more projects in mind.

You are professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. How's life there?

First of all the University is very good. We have a very good department. I also was the chairman of the department. I really like both doing research and teaching. It's a great environment. It's very special. It's a beautiful town. Of course there are sometimes very bad times, like Intifada when there were buses exploding and people got hurt and sometimes there is tension not just between Jews and Arabs but also between secular Jews and religious Jews. I like that it's not an homogeneous place. You have different population interacting. Even if there is some tension there is also some kind of cooperation and harmony.

Do you know Wikipedia?

Yes, I know Wikipedia. I sometimes use it, even in mathematics it's becoming such a rich encyclopedia and so up to date. Even in mathematics sometimes when I want to be up to date on something I look at Wikipedia.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.