Monday, June 20, 2005

Going Back - VII


Meanwhile, D. was having a slightly different experience of life at Moscow State University. As a mathematics research student (now in her second postgraduate year at Girton, Cambridge), she spent much of her time in the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics, usually abbreviated as Mekhmat. In the late 1960s, Mekhmat was a very active centre of pure mathematics, and some of the world’s greatest mathematicians worked there. A.N. Kolmogorov was the central and most senior figure, renowned for his work in functional analysis, but also as a giant presence in mathematics as a whole. Since the 1930s he had been surrounded by pupils – in particular Maltsev (who died in 1967), Gnedenko and Gelfand. Gnedenko has left a description of what it was like to study with Kolmogorov:

The time of their graduate studies remains for all of Kolmogorov's students an unforgettable period in their lives, full of high scientific and cultural strivings, outbursts of scientific progress and a dedication of all one's powers to the solutions of the problems of science. It is impossible to forget the wonderful walks on Sundays to which [Kolmogorov] invited all his own students (graduates and undergraduates), as well as the students of other supervisors. These outings in the environs of Bolshevo, Klyazma, and other places about 30-35 kilometres away, were full of discussions about the current problems of mathematics (and its applications), as well as discussions about the questions of the progress of culture, especially painting, architecture and literature.
All postgraduate students at Mekhmat were assigned to a scientific advisor, and D., who was specializing in problems of algebraic topology and functional analysis, was assigned to Gelfand. At this time (1969-70), he was working on a series of important papers on the cohomology of infinite dimensional Lie algebras, and my wife took part in some of the work. Like Kolmogorov, Gelfand was interested in the relation of mathematics to literature, and was very well read not only in the Russian classics, but also in modern literature and literary criticism: he had a detailed knowledge of Russian formalist theory, and had studied the work of Roman Yakobson, Boris Eichenbaum, Yury Tynyanov and other prominent figures of the 1920s. He was personally acquainted with Nadezhda Mandelshtam, and knew many of Osip Mandelshtam’s poems by heart.

Some time in late November, Gelfand invited us both to his Moscow apartment for an evening at which he said that "mathematics will meet with poetry". It transpired that what he had in mind was a kind of mathematical-literary seminar. After we had had dinner with him and his family, he placed me in one room of the large and roomy flat, which was adorned with rare paintings by pre-revolutionary artists and Soviet artists of the 1920s, and my wife in another, in such a way that we could both see each other. In “my” room there were books of poetry by Pasternak, Mandelshtam, and Yesenin (a poet much admired by Kolmogorov), while in D.’s there were the works of mathematics she was currently studying, as well as some of the cohomology papers. Gelfand chose some poems for me to read, and some passages of math for D., and kept coming round to see us in our rooms, now to talk about poetry, now to discuss mathematics – sometimes he would talk to me about mathematics, and to D. about poetry. We both felt that the experiment had an effect on our relationship – both that there were points of contact between the two apparently so very different fields of mathematics and poetry, and also that there might be none, or very few. It was a strange experience, and was repeated three or four times over the months that followed. The end result of it all was that Gelfand advised me to write poems, and D. to write mathematics. In addition, he told us that a woman has a much shorter mathematical "life" than a man - for if a woman mathematician has even one child, he asserted, it will take ten years out of that life. These were our lessons, and would stand us in good stead for the future, he said. It certainly influenced the future progress of our marriage.

Sometimes Gelfand wanted to talk about the political situation in the Soviet Union – and also about the events in Czechoslovakia, the war in Vietnam, and political developments in the West. When these subjects came up, he would order a taxi, whose driver he appeared to know, and all three of us would go driving around the southern part of Moscow while he explained to us his views on the world situation. We sensed a deep anxiety on his part, not so much for himself as for many of his academic colleagues – there was an official policy of anti-Semitism, but so far it had not affected anyone at Mekhmat. Sometimes he quoted Mandelshtam’s poem My s toboy na kukhne posidim, with its personal and intimate evocation of Stalin’s Russia, applying it to the experience of tyranny both in an immediate context and in the most general and universal way. Then he would drive with us back to the apartment and play us recordings of Monteverdi, or of Neuhaus playing Bach and Mozart.

(to be continued)

See also:

Going Back Again
Going Back Again - II
Going Back Again - III
Going Back Again - IV
Going Back Again - V
Going Back Again - VI

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