Archive for the ‘My Career and Personal Life’ Category.

My First Husband with My Third Husband

Bernstein and Goncharov

The year is 1994. The man on the left is my first husband, Alexander Goncharov. Although we were out of touch for a decade, when I married my third husband, Joseph Bernstein (on the right), Goncharov started visiting us. It wasn’t me he was interested in: he wanted to talk mathematics with my husband. I found this situation hilarious, so I took this photo.

But that’s not all. My second husband, Andrey Radul, is not in the picture. But all four of us were students of Israel Gelfand. In short, my three ex-husbands and I are mathematical siblings — that is, we are all one big happy mathematical family.

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The Best Writing on Mathematics 2016

Best Writing on Mathematics 2016The Best Writing on Mathematics 2016 is out. I am happy that my paper The Pioneering Role of the Sierpinski Gasket is included. The paper is written jointly with my high-school students Eric Nie and Alok Puranik as our PRIMES-2014 project.

At the end of the book there is a short list of notable writings that were considered but didn’t make it. The “short” list is actually a dozen pages long. And it includes two more papers of mine:

To continue bragging, I want to mention that my paper A Line of Sages was on the short list for 2015 volume. And my paper Conway’s Wizards was included in the 2014 volume.

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A Waterfall of my Feelings

I married an American citizen and moved to the US in 1990. At the time I was a very patriotic Russian. It took me a year of pain to realize that some of my ideas had been influenced by Soviet propaganda. After I washed away the brainwashing, I fell in love with the US. For 25 years I thought that America was great. Not anymore.

For the last several months I’ve been worried as never before in my life. I feel paralyzed and sick. To help myself I decided to put my feelings in words.

World War. My mom was 15 when World War II started. The war affected her entire life, as well as the lives of everyone in the USSR. Every now and then my mom would tell me, “You are lucky that you are already 20 and you haven’t witnessed a world war.” I moved to the US while my mom stayed back in Russia. From time to time I tell myself something like, “I am lucky that halfway through my expected lifetime, I haven’t had to live through a world war.” It’s been more than 70 years since WWII ended. To maintain the peace is a difficult job. Everything needs to be in balance. Trump is disrupting this balance. I am worried sick that my children or grandchildren will have to witness a major war.

The Red Button. I’ve noticed that, as a true showman, Trump likes misdirecting attention from things that worry him to fantastic plot twists that he invents. What’s the best way to make people forget about his tax returns? It’s the nuclear button. Dropping a nuclear bomb some place will divert people from thinking about his tax returns. As his plot twists are escalating, is he crazy enough to push the button?

Climate. The year 2014 was the warmest on record. The year 2015 was even warmer. And last year, 2016, was even warmer than that. I remember Vladimir Arnold’s class on differential equations. He talked about a painting that had been hanging on a wall for 20 years. Then it unexpectedly fell off. Mathematics can explain how such catastrophic events can happen. I keep thinking about our Earth: melting ice, dead reefs, fish eating plastic, and so much more. My grandchildren might not be able to enjoy beaches and forests the way I did. What if, like the fallen painting, the Earth can spiral out of control and completely deteriorate? But Trump is ignoring the climate issues. Does he care about our grandchildren? I am horrified that Trump’s policies will push climate catastrophe beyond the point of no return.

The Truth. Wiretapping is not wiretapping. Phony jobs numbers stopped being phony as soon as Trump decided that he deserved the credit. The news is fake when Trump doesn’t like it. Trump is a pathological liar; he assaults the truth. Being a scientist I am in search of truth, and Trump diminishes it. I do not understand why people ignore his lies. Two plus two is four whether you are a democrat, or a republican, or whomever. Facts are facts, alternative facts are lies. I am scared that lies have become acceptable and no one cares about the truth any more.

Russia. I lived in Russia for the first unhappy half of my life, and in the US for the second happy half. I do not want to go back. There is something fishy between Putin and Trump. Whether it is blackmail or money, or both, I do not know the details yet, But Trump is under Putin’s influence. Trump didn’t win the elections: Putin won. This horrifies me. I do not want to go back to being under Russian rule.

Gender Issues. I grew up in a country where the idea of a good husband was a man who wasn’t a drunkard. That wasn’t enough for me. I dreamed of a relationship in which there would be an equal division of work, both outside and inside the home. I could not achieve that because in Russian culture both people work full-time and the wife is solely responsible for all the house chores. Moreover, Russia was much poorer than the US: most homes didn’t have washing machines; we never heard of disposable diapers; and there were very long lines for milk and other necessities.

The life in USSR was really unfair to women. Most women had a full-time job and several hours of home chores every day. When I moved to the US, I thought I was in paradise. Not only did I have diapers and a washing machine, I was spending a fraction of the time shopping, not to mention that my husband was open to helping me, and didn’t mind us paying for the occasional babysitter or cleaner.

For some time I was blind to gender issues in the US because it was so much better. Then I slowly opened my eyes and became aware of the bias. For some years it has felt like gender equity was improving. Now, with a misogynistic president, I feel that the situation might revert to the dark ages. When women are not happy, their children are not happy, and they grow up to be not happy. If the pursuit of happiness is the goal, the life has to be fair to all groups. But Trump insults not only women but also immigrants, Muslims, members of the LGBTQ community, as well as the poor and the sick. The list is so long, that almost everyone is marginalized. This is not a path towards a happy society.

Democracy. Trump attacks the press and attempts to exclude them. Trump has insulted the intelligence community and the courts. He seems to be trying to take more power to the presidency at the expense of the other branches of government. He ignores his conflicts of interest. Trump disregards every rule of democracy and gets away with it. I am horrified that our democracy is dying.

Tax Returns. Trump’s tax returns could either exonerate him or prove that he is Putin’s puppet. The fact that he is hiding the returns makes me believe that the latter is more probable. Why the Republicans refuse to demand to see his returns is beyond my understanding.

Corruption. Trump does so many unethical things. Most of his decisions as president seem to be governed by Trump trying to get richer. Let us consider his hotel in Azerbaijan—a highly corrupt country. Having lived in a highly corrupt country myself, I know how it works. For example, an Azerbaijani government official who has access to their country’s money can make a deal that involves a personal kickback. This means that their government is paying more than necessary for a service or product in order to cover that kickback. This is how national money makes its way into individual pockets. Since all the deals in Azerbaijan are reputed to be like that, I imagine that when Trump built his hotel there, the Trump organization was overpaid in order to cover the bribe to local officials. Will our country become as corrupt as Azerbaijan?

Americans. The biggest shock of the election was that so many people were so gullible and actually voted for Trump. They didn’t see that his agenda is focused on his own profit, and that he lies and makes promises he doesn’t plan to deliver. It really terrifies me that there are some people who are not gullible but still voted for Trump.

Is there hope?

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My Last Visit to Smullyan

Raymond SmullyanI already posted a funny true story that Smullyan told me when I last visited him. Raymond Smullyan died recently at the age of 97 and my mind keeps coming back to this last visit.

The year was 2012 and I was about to drive back to Boston after my talk at Penn State. Smullyan’s place in the Catskills was on the way—sort of. I wanted to call him, but I was apprehensive. Raymond Smullyan had a webpage on which his email was invisible. You could find his email address by looking at the source file or by highlighting empty space at the bottom of the page. Making your contact information invisible sends a mixed message.

While this was a little eccentric, it meant that only people who were smart enough to find it, could access his email address. I already knew his email because he had given it to me along with his witty reply to my blog post about our meeting at the Gathering for Gardner in 2010.

In our personal interactions, he always seemed to like me, so I called Raymond and arranged a visit for the next day around lunch time. When I knocked on his door, no one answered, but the door was open, and since Smullyan was expecting me, I walked right in. “Hello? Anyone there? Hello? Hello?” As I wandered around the house, I saw an open bedroom door and inside Smullyan was sleeping. So I sat down in his library and picked up a book.

When he woke up, he was happy to see me, and he was hungry. He told me that he didn’t eat at home, so we should go out together for lunch. I was hungry too, so I happily agreed. Then he said that he wanted to drive. I do not have a poker face, so he saw the fear in me. My only other trip with a nonagenarian driver flashed in front of my eyes. The driver had been Roman Totenberg and it had been the scariest drive I have ever experienced.

I said that I wanted to drive myself. Annoyed, Raymond asked me if I was afraid of him taking the wheel. I told him that I have severe motion sickness and always prefer to drive myself. Raymond could see that I was telling the truth. I got the impression that he was actually relieved when he agreed to go in my car.

We went to Selena’s Diner. He took out playing cards with which he showed me magic tricks. I showed him some tricks too. This was probably a bad move as he abandoned me to go to the neighboring table to show his magic tricks to a couple of young girls. They were horrified at first”his unruly hair, his over-the-top energy, his ebullient behavior”but between me and the waitress, we quickly reassured them. The girls enjoyed the tricks, and I enjoyed my visit.

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Trump’s Ban is Good for Trump’s Business

Like many people, I was appalled by Trump’s immigration ban. On the Internet I found many essays that explained that he did not include in the ban those majority-Muslim countries in which he has business interests. See for example, an article at Forbes with a nice map, and an article at NPR.

Now the countries that are excluded are motivated to continue to support Trump’s businesses, and to offer him bribes and good deals in exchange for staying out of the ban. The countries on the list are also motivated to approach Trump and offer him a sweet business deal.

So even if the courts stopped the ban, he has already succeeded in showing every country in the world that to be on his good side requires that they pay up. And China got the hint and granted Trump a trademark he’s been seeking for a decade.

Looks like Trump’s vision of a great America is a very rich Mr Trump.

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Russian and American Children

The first time I visited the US was in 1990 at the invitation of an old friend, Joseph Bernstein. After my arrival Joseph proposed and I accepted, but my essay is not about that.

Joseph reintroduced me to his daughter, Mira, who was then in her late teens. I was struck by Mira’s charm. I had never before met teenagers like her. Of course, Joseph got points for that as I was hoping to have a child with him. When I moved to the US I met some other kids who were also incredibly charming. It was too late to take points away from Joseph, but it made me realize what a huge difference there was between Soviet and American teenagers. American teenagers were happier, more relaxed, better mannered, and less cynical than Soviet ones.

My oldest son, Alexey, was born in the USSR and moved to the US when he was eight. One unremarkable day when he was in middle school (Baker public school in Brookline), the principle invited me for a chat. I came to the school very worried. The principal explained to me that there was a kid who was bugging Alexey and Alexey pushed him back with a pencil. While the principal proceeded to explain the dangers of a pencil, I tuned out. I needed all my energy to conceal my happy smile. This was one of the happiest moments of my life in the US. What a great country I live in where the biggest worry of a principal in a middle school is the waving of a pencil! I remembered Alexey’s prestigious school in Moscow. They had fights every day that resulted in bloody noses and lost teeth. When I complained to his Russian teacher, she told me that it was not her job to supervise children during big breaks. Plus the children needed to learn to be tough. No wonder American children are happier.

I was wondering if there were any advantages to a Soviet upbringing. For one thing, Soviet kids grow up earlier and are less naive. They are more prepared for harsh realities than those American kids who are privileged.

Naive children grow up into naive adults. Naive adults become naive presidents. I watched with pain as naive Bush (“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”) and naive Obama (Russian reset) misunderstood and underestimated Putin.

Putin is (and, according to Forbes Magazine, has been for the last four years) the most powerful person in the world. Even though the US kept its distance from Russia, he was able to manipulate us from afar. Now that Trump wants to be close to Putin, the manipulation will be even easier. Putin is better at this game. He will win and we will lose.

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Russian Honor Code

I have always wanted to be an honest person and have followed my honor code. Soviet Russia had two honor codes. One code was for dealing with people and the other for dealing with businesses and the government. I remind you that in Soviet Russia, all businesses were owned by the government. The money paid for work didn’t have any relation to the work done. The government paid standard salaries and the businesses did whatever. Generally, that meant that they were doing nothing. Meanwhile, the government got its income from selling oil.

All people were being screwed by the government, so they had no motivation to play fair. Just as American workers do, Soviet Russians might use the work copier to make personal copies. The difference was that we didn’t feel guilty at ripping off the government. We wouldn’t just make a few necessary copies; we would make copies for our friends, our family, for strangers—as many copies as possible.

I moved to the United States in 1990. Several of my friends took time to explain to me the difference between Soviet Russia and the US. One of the friends, let’s call her Sarah, was working as staff at Harvard University. She told me the story of a recent visit by a famous Russian professor. After he left, the department received a bill. It appears that the professor, in a short visit, used several months-worth of the department’s budget allocation for copying and phone calls. I was impressed, in a good way, by the professor who I assume spent a good deal of his time making a lot of copies of papers unavailable in Russia, presumably not only for himself but also for students and colleagues. On the other hand, it was clearly wrong.

My new friend Sarah told me that in the US money does not come from nowhere, and I should include Harvard University in my honor code for people. Actually, not only Harvard, but also any place of work and the government too. Sarah also told me that since that budget problem, she was asked to talk to every incoming Russian visitor and explain to them how capitalism works. Most Russian visitors were ready to accept the rules. I too was delighted with that. It is much easier to follow one honor code than two.

I was also very happy for my son, Alexey. He was eight when we moved to Boston. Before our move I had a dilemma. Should I tell him that Lenin and Stalin were bad guys and killed millions of people? If I gave him a truthful explanation, I would also have to teach him to lie. Otherwise, if he mentioned this at school or on the street, we would be at risk of going to prison. If I didn’t teach him the truth, he might become brainwashed and grow up believing in communism, which would be very, very bad.

I was so lucky that I moved to the US: I didn’t have to teach my son to lie.

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Should You Apply to PRIMES?

If you are a high-school student who wants to conduct research in mathematics, you should check out the MIT PRIMES program. If you enjoy solving the problems in our entrance test, that’s the first indication that you might want to apply. But to determine if the program is right for you, and you are right for the program, please read the following questions and answers which have been prepared for you by Tanya Khovanova, the PRIMES Head Mentor. (This only addresses applications to PRIMES Math, and only to the research track)

Question: I do not like math competitions. Should I apply?
Answer: Math competitions are completely separate from research in mathematics. If you enjoy thinking about mathematics for long periods of time and are fascinated by our test questions, you should apply.

Question: I am good at math, but I really want to be a doctor. Should I apply?
Answer: No. PRIMES requires a huge time commitment, so math should really be your most significant interest.

Question: I want to get into Harvard, and PRIMES looks good on a resume. Should I apply?
Answer: PRIMES does look good on a resume. But if you are more passionate about, say, climate change than math, what would Harvard’s admission committee see? Our experience in the program is that if math isn’t your top interest, your math student may not be sufficiently impressive to be accepted at Harvard as a math researcher. At the same time, you will not be accepted as the top climate change student as you didn’t invest your time in that. Math research is a hard way to earn points for college. See also, the essay, Thoughts on research by Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo.

Question: My parents want me to apply. Should I apply?
Answer: Your parents will not be accepted to the program. Do not apply if you do not really, really want to.

Question: Your website suggests that I should spend ten hours a week on the PRIMES project. I can only spend five. But I am a genius and faster than other people.
Answer: We already assume that you are a genius and faster than anyone else you know. Five hours a week are not enough for a successful project.

Question: I looked at the past PRIMES projects and nothing excites me as much as my current interest in Pascal’s triangle. I doubt I should apply.
Answer: When you start working on a project, you will learn a lot about it. You will understand why, for example, Cherednik algebras are cool. The excitement comes with knowledge and invested time. Not yet being excited about Cherednik algebras is not a good reason not to apply. Besides a lot of exciting mathematics is done between several different fields.

Question: I really want to do nothing else than study Pascal’s triangle.
Answer: We try to match our projects to students’ interests as much as we can. But we almost never can fulfill a specific request as above. You might get a project related to Young diagrams, which are connected to quantum Pascal’s triangle. If this connection doesn’t excite you, you shouldn’t apply.

Question: I think I will be better positioned for research if I spend five more years studying.
Answer: There is nothing wrong with this approach. For many years the standard was to start research in graduate school. Our program is innovative. At PRIMES we are trying a different model. It may sound scary, but you will learn everything you need to know in order to do your project. If the project is in representation theory, for example, you will only learn what you need—not the whole theory. Our hope is that eventually you will take a course in representation theory and expand your grasp of it and see the bigger picture behind your project. We have a reading track for people like you who reside in Boston area.

Question: I love math, but I am not sure that I want to be a mathematician. Should I apply?
Answer: Many people start loving math early in life and then discover that there are many other things that require a similar kind of brain: computer science, cryptography, finance, and so on. We do not require from our students a commitment to become mathematicians. If you want to try research in math, you should apply. If students decide that they do not want to do research in math after finishing our program, we do not consider that a negative result. One way or another, the experience of PRIMES will help you understand better what you want to do with your life.

Question: I want to get to the International Math Olympiad. I am afraid that the time the research project takes prevents me from preparing for competitions. Should I apply?
Answer: People who are good at Olympiads often have fantastic brain power that helps in research. On the other hand, research requires a different mind set and the transition might be painful. It is possible, but not trivial to succeed in both. It is up to you to decide how you want to spend your time.

Question: I like number theory, but I do not see past PRIMES projects in number theory.
Answer: Doable number theory projects are hard to come by and we have fewer number theory projects than students who want to do number theory. There are many high-school programs that teach number theory including PROMYS and Ross programs. Our applicants like number theory because they were exposed to it. During PRIMES you will be exposed to something else and might like it as much.

Question: I found a local professor to work with on a research project. Should I apply to PRIMES?
Answer: PRIMES requires that you devote 10 hours a week to research for a year. It is unrealistic to do two research projects in parallel. Choose one. Working with someone in person may be better than by Skype at PRIMES. Also, usually our mentors are not professors, but rather graduate students. On the other hand, they are MIT grad students and projects are often suggested by professors. Our program is well structured. We guarantee weekly meetings in the Spring, we give extra help with your paper, and we have a conference. It is up to you to decide.

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Late Homework

One of my jobs is giving linear algebra recitations at MIT. The most unpleasant aspect of it is dealing with late homework. Students attempt to submit their homework late for lots of different reasons: a sick parent needing help, stress, a performance at Carnegie Hall, a broken printer, flu, and so on. How do I decide which excuse is sufficient, and which is not? I do not want to be a judge! Moreover, my assumption is that people tell the truth. In the case of linear algebra homework, this assumption is unwise. As soon as students discover that I trust everyone, there’s a sharp increase in the number of sick parents and broken printers. So I have the choice of being either a naive idiot or a suspicious cynic. I do not like either role.

Our linear algebra course often adopts a brilliant approach: We announce that late homework is not allowed for any reason. To compensate for emergencies, we drop everyone’s lowest score. That is, we allow the students to skip one homework out of ten. They are free to use this option for oversleeping the 4 pm deadline. If all their printers work properly and they do not get so sick that they have to skip their homework, they can forgo the last homework. Happily, this relieves me from being a judge.

Or does it? Unfortunately, this policy doesn’t completely resolve the problem. Some students continue trying to push their late homework on me, despite the rules. In order to be fair to other students and to follow the rules, I reject all late homework. The students who badger me nonetheless waste my time and drain my emotions. This is very unpleasant.

From the point of view of those students, such behavior makes sense. They have nothing to lose and they might get some points. There is no way to punish a person who tries to hand in homework late and from time to time they stumble onto a soft instructor who accepts the homework against the official rules. Because such behavior is occasionally rewarded, they continue doing it. I believe that wrong behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. As a responsible adult, I think it is my duty to counteract the rewards of this behavior. But I do not know how.

What should I do? Maybe I should…

  1. Persuade our course leader, or MIT in general, to introduce a punishment for trying to hand in late homework. We might, for example, subtract points from their final score.
  2. Promote the value of honorably following the rules through discussions with the students.
  3. Growl at any student who submits their homework late.
  4. Explain to them what other people think about them, when they do not follow the rules.

Maybe I should just do number 4 right now and explain what I feel. A student who persists in handing in homework late feels to me that s/he is entitled and is better than everyone else, and shows that s/he doesn’t care about the rules and honor. Again, this wastes my time, puts me in a disagreeable position, and reduces my respect for that student.

Earlier I suggested that students don’t have anything to lose by such behavior, but in fact, they do pay a price, even though they may not understand that.

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Mikhail Khovanov at Kvant

MishaRussians cherish the issues of Kvant, a famous Soviet monthly magazine for high-school students devoted to math and physics. At its peak its circulation was about 300,000, which is unparalleled for a children’s science journal. I still have my old childhood issues somewhere in my basement. But one issue is very special: it has a prominent place in my office. I didn’t receive it by subscription; I received it as a gift from my brother Misha.

Strictly speaking Misha is not my brother, but rather a half-brother. His full name is Mikhail Khovanov and he is a math professor at Columbia. The signed issue he gave me contains his math problem published in the journal. He invented this problem when he was a 10th grader. Here it is:

In a convex n-gon (n > 4), no three diagonals are concurrent (intersect at the same point). What is the maximum number of the diagonals that can be drawn inside this polygon so that all the parts they divide into are triangles?

He designed other problems while he was in high school. All of them are geometrical in nature. The journal is available online, and a separate document with all the math problems is also available (in Russian). His problems are M1038, M1103, M1108 (above), M1119, M1153, M1204. I like his other problems too. M1153 (below) is the shortest problem on his list: as usual I am guided by my laziness.

What’s the greatest number of turns that a rook’s Hamiltonian cycle through every cell on an 8 by 8 chessboard can contain?

I wanted to accompany this post with a picture of my brother at the age he was when he invented these problems—about 16. Unfortunately, I don’t have a quality picture from that period. I do have a picture that is slightly off: by about ten years.

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