The Mathematician’s Shiva: Stuart Rojstaczer
Rachela Karnokovitch has invited everyone to her hospital room to pay their final respects. Her son Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch is relating the story along with our creative author whose voice and opinions we hear throughout the novel. Rachela just want to pass on with love, dignity and her own way. Living her life in Poland, soaring at math and becoming a famous Polish mathematician after defecting to America and leaving her husband and son behind, Rachela is a force to be reckoned with in life and in death. A professor at the University of Wisconsin the author shares the history behind her having possibly solved the million-dollar; Navier Stokes Millennium Prize but not before he explains its relation to himself and his job as a hurricane hunter. With the formula in tact and the explanation at hand readers learn about this equation, how it might be solved and the fact the she might have taken the answer to her grave. So many have come to pay their respects to her at the hospital and even more at the Shiva but poor Alexander needs to understand much to his dismay that most are there for only one purpose: to find the answer to the mathematical problem, search her notes, even pry open the floorboards and rip everything apart in order to find the answers. But, all Sasha wants is to mourn and remember his mother the right way for seven days and seven nights. How she solved this problem and why she took it to her grave is the primary focus of this novel. Imagine even thinking that her African Grey Parrot might help. But, first the author takes readers back to Rachela’s childhood, when at an early age her teacher realized that she was a math genius which not only helped her succeed in school but because times were hard and food was scarce she was able to help provide for her family.
The Navier Stokes Equation named after Claude Louis Navier and George Gabriel Stokes deals with and describes the motion of fluid substances. Applying Newton’s second law to fluid motion, along with the assumption that stress in the fluid is the sum of a diffusing viscous term and pressure term- therefore describing viscous flow. These equations were useful since they describe the physics of many things of academic and economic interest and may be used as we learn from Sasha they may be used to model the weather, ocean currents, water flow in a pipe and air flow around a wing. These equations helped to simplified forms with the design of aircraft cars, study of blood flow , the design of power stations and even the analysis of pollution. Together with Maxwell’s equations they can be used to model and study magneto hydrodynamics. But, Rachela was a mathematician of her highest order and solving these equations were of interest to her in the mathematical sense. Imagine being offered a one million dollar prize if you can prove that in three dimensions solutions always exist or called existence, or that if they really do exist, then they do not contain any singularity and are smooth. These are called the Navier-Stokes existence smoothness problems and the Clay Mathematics Institute call this one of the seven most important open problems and offered one million dollars for a solution or counter problem.
Navier–Stokes equations (general)
is the flow velocity,
is the fluid density,
is the pressure,
is the (deviatoric) component of the total stress tensor, which has order two,
represents body forces (per unit volume) acting on the fluid,
is the del operator.
In order to understand what these mathematicians were trying to do I thought seeing the formula and understanding what the equations mean might help readers grasp what Rachela was doing. Explaining in chapter 20 titled Story Hour how his mother worked equal to her mentor on the many different equations and hearing in her own voice in chapter 21 about her life, hunger, working with Grozslev who was interested as Rachela relates in the greatest “unknown in the world of physics turbulence.” Throughout the chapter she explains how Grozzlev introduced her to the field of turbulence in 1940 and how he was managing to work on “defining the essence of fluid mechanics in a mathematical sense.” Reminding readers that we all want to live our lives in an ordered environment or that if mistakes are made we can correct them as simply as changing a battery in a radio. But, the chapter continues in depth as the author through Rachela explains turbulence and what would happen if we lived in a world where we could “Understand these destructive forces fully and we weren’t either blindly scared of turbulence more commonly , blindly optimistic that we will avoid its affect. As you complete reading this chapter you will understand more as the author brilliantly illustrates how this is related to the famous Pythagorean Theorem with diagrams that I completely and you the reader will understand. She continues with the most compelling description of how she truly learned at 11 years old the definition and meaning of turbulence just by seeing the ocean and experiencing the movement of the waves, the taste of the salt in the air and the water and living it first hand.
When the mathematicians decided to attend the funeral and some the Shiva, Sasha faced many difficult decisions regarding the procedures to be followed. Making it clear that he would not allow any of these people to speak or come near the casket in order to open it and it would be sealed let to a discussion he did not expect. Thinking about what this one person stated caused him to allow several of these people to attend the Shiva as guest just to pray and leave at night. Following them came a group of young women that attend Rachela’s classes and they too were invited to the Shiva in respect to Anna. Flashing back to when Rachela was growing up, her journey living in poverty and her rise to becoming one of the best mathematician’s in the world we also learn more about Sasha, his fading relationship with his wife, the child he would never get to know and the reasons why his marriage failed. When Catherine failed her prelims for her Doctorate and could not deliver her dissertation, Rachela aptly explained that although she was smart she did not as we might say, think out of the box and her sense of originality did not exist. She went on the state many of her other flaws and rather than deny or refute what his mother said, Alexander distance himself further from Catherine and buried himself in his own work and hope for his own degree. A family of intelligent and super smart people whose goals were academic and whose allegiances and feelings went just so far as to help some, not all and respect those that fit into their sphere of intelligence. So, hoping to solve the Navier Stokes Problem was her goal and finding the solution and her notes the primary reason everyone came to her funeral and wanted the chance to search around her home to find the secret that she might have hidden.
Bruce the cousin who handles the funeral, Shiva and the arrangements for the Mayor’s memorial, Uncle Shlomo who everyone will love and adore and let’s not forget Pascha the African grey parrot As we listen to Alexander take us back to Russia where it all began hearing Rachela tell the story of her youth, the lack of food and how her family would not give up and just how they survived.
But, as we listen to the mourners and get to know each one as they start to rip up the floorboards, hold séances and tried to find out if this parrot has any hidden secrets beneath his wings, the flashbacks to her childhood and fleeing Poland during the second world war, the reader is privy to her thoughts directly from her memoirs. But, Sasha and the others talk about Kolmogorov, work completed by his mother and credited to him and others, plus someone who stole Rachela’s papers on Hilberts’s 13th problem? Arguments ensue, words are spoken and accusations hurled. Each day the author through Sasha relates more from her memoirs to keep mourners and readers interest during the seven-day Shiva period.
Author Stuart Rojstaczer takes readers from the present to the past and helps us unravel and unfold the mystery that was Rachela helping readers find out if she really did solve the equation. Who benefits and what lessons might be learned. Day 3 of the Shiva the author describes The Ski Trip that Rachela and her husband took every winter. Even comparing the cold climate of where the trip took place to the cold during the Shiva. The entire chapter seems to center around that trip, the coldness during the Shiva period, the air so frigid it made Sasha often feel numb both inside and out and the significance of snow angels. Day four or chapter 24 is titled Kabbalove and continuing with the ski trip and the reader will note that the chapters containing her memoirs have a different font which is smaller than the other chapters. But, Sasha learns more about himself as he finally meets the daughter and granddaughter he never knew in the hope of developing some type of relationship even at this late date. With a granddaughter named Amy who seemed to be following in Rachela’s footsteps and a family that wanted to know where her pages and secrets were hidden what happens next will alert readers to just how these mathematicians think, to what lengths they would go to uncover what one woman wanted buried.
Seven days of Shiva and definitely not your typical Shiva with some coming for one reason, others to pay respects, some just missing their sister, wishing as I do, to just talk to that person one more time or just tell them how much they mean to you, the Mathematician’s Shiva: Seven Days that you the reader will experience along with Sasha, his family and all of the mathematicians to learn. What does Yakov learn and what is his triumph? What lessons in life does Sasha learn as he tries to develop a relationship with this daughter and granddaughter? Did Rachela solve the equation? Find out when you experience the 7 days of Shiva, the funeral, the mathematicians and their antics, the séance that changed on man’s life and hear Rachela’s final words as she expresses them so beautifully: Focus on what is beautiful and purse that beauty. We are not perfect vessels, certainly, I am not an exception.” From the indignities many suffered at the hand of the Russian soldiers and government to the Polish Pogroms, to the many who came to America for a better life, go back in time and take the journey with Rachela, learn the importance of math and why she was so passionate and sit with her family for seven days and truly understand the meaning of The Mathematician’s Shiva.
Fran Lewis: reviewer