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# The Mathematician

Communicated by *Notices* Associate Editor Emily Olson

One summer day in 2008, a younger colleague of mine from the Williams Chemistry Department looked somewhat frazzled. When asked why, she explained that her tenure packet was due the following Friday, and that she was desperately trying to finish two more papers, so that on her vita the papers could be listed as “submitted.” This made perfect sense to me. Only in December 2008 when the good news came that this colleague did indeed get tenure (a decision that I considered a no-brainer), did I briefly rethink our summer conversation. First, there is no way that having two more papers listed as submitted would push anyone over the tenure bar. But also, what if this colleague had only submitted these papers a few days later, after the tenure packet was due, but still listed them as submitted? Who would have ever known? As far as cutting corners go, it would not have been a huge deal. But at the time, my chemistry colleague never even considered this as an option.

Suppose, though, we were not in the summer of 2008 in Massachusetts but instead in 1937 Germany, and the young academic was not a chemist but a young mathematician who is socially awkward and self-centered with a Jewish sounding name (and possibly with actual but hidden Jewish roots). What would be mere “cutting corners” today could have had life and death consequences then. We are in the world of this novel.

This novel is an historical mystery. Like most mysteries, part of the charm is not the mystery itself but the mileu in which the mystery occurs. The author, the late Jacob Goodman (see the memorial tribute in this issue), was most definitely a serious research mathematician, and hence this mystery is set in the world of academic mathematics. More specifically, the mystery shifts in the first half between the Columbia University math department of 1967 and German academe of the 1930s while the second half shifts between the math worlds of the 1930s and 1990s.

The mystery is about the sudden disappearance in 1967 of Claus Eisenstadt, in the evening after a small congratulatory party in honor of his receiving a type of “lifetime achievement” award from his long-term school Columbia. We quickly learn that Eisenstadt arrived at Columbia as a Jewish refugee from Germany during the early years of World War II, but before Pearl Harbor. His reputation stemmed from two papers written right before his departure from Germany, papers that were critical in the development of algebraic topology. These papers were significantly different then his few earlier papers, which were simply not of the same caliber. In the ensuing years, Eisenstadt publishes a few more significant papers, usually with a coauthor, but overall his career does not live up to the promise hinted at in the two topology papers.

We also quickly learn that Eisenstadt is quite eccentric, and not the lovable, charming type. In fact, in the very first paragraph of the novel, at the small party in his honor, we see him smashing the camera of a young journalism student who had the audacity of both trying to take his picture and to interview him about his award for the student paper. And the very next day, Eisenstadt was gone.

As would be expected, this type of behavior leads to intense interest and gossip in the Columbia math department. In particular, Judy Carter, a second-year graduate student, becomes almost obsessed (within reason) with understanding who Eisenstadt really was; where he went; and why he vanished.

Judy to a large extent represents a typical mathematician. She was the star math student as an undergraduate at a small school in the Midwest. On arrival at graduate school, she quickly finds herself at home in the cultural and intellectual hub of the Upper West Side of Manhattan around Columbia. By her second year, she starts to hear the siren song of the Grothendieck revolution in algebraic geometry. In the second part of the book, when we shift from 1967 to the midnineties, we see her as a successful midcareer research mathematician, long tenured at City University, with the standard sort of informal network of colleagues spread throughout the world. And it is suggested her success in mathematics is linked to certain obsessive tendencies, as she still wants to crack the mystery of Eisenstadt.

We also get to see the mathematical journey of Eisenstadt in 1930s Germany, from his undergraduate days to what would now be called postdoc years. There are small intense seminars and interactions with “big” names such as Felix Hausdorff, Emil Artin (his thesis advisor), and Emmy Noether. There was a continual emphasis by his mentors and professors on the creation of new ideas, leading to understandable pressure on Eisenstadt to show that not only could he synthesize existing mathematics (even at a high level) but he could also discover new mathematics. This pressure is still present today. In fact, I seem to recall the graduate school insult (biting because of how true it often was) that someone was merely a “good student,” with the implication of course that they could learn but not create mathematics.

There also appear other easily recognizable mathematical character types. In the 1967 world, there is a Russian-Jewish tenured math professor at Columbia. He leads a charmingly intense and decent intellectual life in New York City, which differs drastically from the life he would have led in the USSR had his family not escaped when he was a child. We are also introduced to a graduate student who flits from math topic to math topic and eventually decides to leave the PhD program. All of us had friends like this in graduate school. Unlike most though, this person eventually becomes a private detective (this is a mystery novel after all).

There are other issues that naturally arise. For example, most readers of the *Notices* spend their lives in a math department full of interesting people, some of whom are quite eccentric. (Unlike the fictional Eisenstadt, almost all of the math eccentrics that I know are of the endearingly quirky type). But do any of us really know any of our colleagues? At the last Williams math department meeting, after reading this novel for the second time, I found myself looking at the other members of the department, many of whom I have known for decades, and wondering how many of them had dark secrets hidden from public view. (To be clear, I quickly concluded that the answer was “none”).

I will include here a small warning that the novel contains a few explicit sex scenes that do not really fit with the rest of the book. These few scenes could also potentially get an American high school teacher in trouble if the book is recommended to nonadult students.

The novel overall is a great read, one which will hold your interest from the first paragraph’s camera smashing incident to the exciting culmination at the end. I expect your nonmath friends will enjoy it. But *Notices* readers will enjoy it even more, seeing how the mystery unfolds in the world that we know so well.

## Credits

Book cover is courtesy of Naomi Goodman.

Photo of Thomas Garrity is courtesy of L. Pedersen.