Transitions 2015

People who have passed on during 2015, whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Yogi Berra (1925-2015), American baseball player
  • Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), American jazz musician
  • Robert Conquest (1917-2015), British kremlinologist
  • Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015), Australian politician
  • Jaako Hintikka (1929-2015), Finnish philosopher and logician
  • Lisa Jardine (1944-2015), British historian
  • Joan Kirner (1938-2015), Australian politician, aka “Mother Russia”
  • Kurt Masur (1927-2015), East German conductor
  • John Forbes Nash (1928-2015), American mathematician
  • Boris Nemtsov (1959-2015), Russian politician
  • Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), British-American neurologist and writer
  • Gunter Schabowski (1929-2015), East German politician
  • Alex Schalck-Golodkowski (1932-2015), East German politician
  • Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), American composer and musician (and French horn player on Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Porgy and Bess).
  • Brian Stewart (1922-2015), British intelligence agent.
  • Ward Swingle (1927-2015), American singer and jazz musician.

Last year’s post is here.

A salute to Bella Subbotovskaya

Bella Subbotovskaya (1938-1982) was a Russian mathematician who founded an underground university in Moscow to teach mathematics to students, particularly but not only Jewish students, excluded from education by the anti-Semitic policies of Moscow State University and other institutions of higher learning. The unpaid lecturers in this underground university were both Jewish and non-Jewish. The activity came to be called the Jewish People’s University and operated, against strong KGB harassment, from 1978 to 1983. Her death was due to a suspicious car accident that may well have been a KGB assassination.
I never cease to be amazed at the stupidity of racism. Even in an allegedly rationalist state such as the late USSR, the authorities deemed it desirable to exclude the best students from university on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.
Reference:

G. Szpiro [2007]: Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya and the Jewish People’s University. Notices of the American Mathematics Society (NAMS), 54 (10): 1326-1330.

St Margaret, Liberator of all the Russias

Here is Philip Henscher, writing in The Spectator (in a review of Volume 2 of Charles Moore’s biography of Mrs Thatcher):

“There is no question that Mrs Thatcher, by boldness and conviction, in large part initiated the process that brought freedom to millions in Eastern Europe.”

This is nonsense. The denizens of Eastern Europe were bravely and publicly protesting their confinement from the late 1940s, at a time when Mrs Thatcher was so junior she was still a chemist. The actual liberation of the Comecon countries began in Poland in the 1950s (and again in the 60s and 70s and 80s), in Hungary in the 1950s and 60s, in the CSSR in the mid 1960s, and the USSR in the 1950s under Khrushchev, and the 1980s, under Andropov. Mikhail Gorbachev was a brave member of the verligte wing of the CPSU, but he was not the first to seek to reform communism, not even in the USSR.

Gorbachev was university friends in the 1950s with Zdenek Mlynar, later one of the architects of the Prague Spring, which Gorbachev followed closely. See here. It is ridiculous to imagine that it took a weekend lunch with Mrs Thatcher at Chequers to persuade him to embark on reform. What next? Did she also invent the Internet?  That her supporters should seek to award Mrs Thatcher the credit for the downfall of communism is also insulting to the brave people who did initiate the changes, and who, with their courageous actions, brought them about.

Guy Burgess and Bosie Douglas

I am reading Andrew Lownie’s fascinating new biography of Guy Burgess, member of the Soviet spy circle, the Cambridge Five. Lownie’s book contains something very curious. (I am reading a Kindle edition, so can only give chapter references.)
In Chapter 20, Relationships, we read in paragraph 1:
“In June 1945 [Peter] Pollock returned to Britain.”
Pollock had been away several years, fighting with the British Army in North Africa and in Italy, and having been captured and held as a POW in Italy. In Paragraph 4, we read:
“That summer Pollock and Burgess had seen much of Brian Howard and his boyfriend, Sam, staying with the couple at their home in Tickerage, East Sussex. On one occasion, they had visited the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas in Brighton, as Burgess wanted to show off Pollock and prove he was even more attractive than the famously attractive Douglas in his youth.[Footnote 5]”
The source (footnote 5) is given as: “Pollock taped interview, by kind permission of Miranda Carter.” Pollock died in Tangier on 28 July 2001.
But, according to Wikipedia, Bosie Douglas died on 20 March 1945, so Pollock and Burgess could not have visited him in summer 1945. Was Pollock mis-remembering the year they met, or deliberately lying about meeting Douglas? In either case, the date of Douglas’s death is surely something Lownie could have checked, rather than repeating Pollock’s statement without critical commentary.
Although the content of the book is superb, the book shows the weaknesses of a text written over a long period (30 years), together with some fairly mediocre editing. On several occasions, the author mentions something without explaining it, forgetting that what he knows is different to what the reader knows. Sometimes explanations are given at the second or later mention, instead of at the first. When Lownie mentions “Johnny Philipps, a rich gay bachelor who lived in Albany”, for example, he does not explain what or where is Albany. Only in a later chapter when talking of someone else do we learn that the Albany was “a fashionable set of apartments off Piccadilly.” Likewise, the Venona transcripts are mentioned in Chapter 26, but only explained in Chapter 28. At one point, we learn that Burgess earnt some GBP 800 pa from a Canadian Trust Fund. Nothing is said about this fund, nor how Burgess came to be a trustee of it, although there is an earlier mention of a trip he took in 1930 with his mother and brother to visit Canada, before going up to Cambridge.  The 1959 TV interview which Burgess gave to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which was only rediscovered in 2015, the only TV interview he ever gave, is mentioned (at location 5566). But Lownie seems to have missed Burgess’ statement in that interview that, “I’m a quarter Canadian myself.”  Which grandparent was Canadian? In Chapter 40, in another example, there is a throwaway reference to a Moscow party given by “the Burchetts”. Australians of a certain age would catch the reference to left-wing journalist Wilfred Burchett, who lived in Moscow in the 1950s, but who else would?
Another instance of poor editing is the description of Novodevichy Cemetery in Chapter 37. Burgess moved to a flat near the cemetery in 1956. Lownie describes the cemetery thus: “where amongst others were the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Khrushchev, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stalin’s wife . . . “. That “were” points to the time Burgess moved nearby. But, Khrushchev only died in 1971, and Shostakovich in 1975, both well after 1956; indeed, well after 1963, when Burgess himself died. I imagine that such poor editing must be an embarrassment to an author whose day job is acting as a literary agent for other authors.  Or is Lownie another author confused about the working of tense in English?
And perhaps taking so long to write a non-fiction book means not enough advantage has been taken of the Web. For instance, is the young German actor named George Mikell mentioned in Chapter 26 the same person as the Lithuanian-Australian actor named George Mikell who has a website? Is the drifter of no fixed abode named James Turck mentioned in Chapter 29 the same James Turck (1924-2011) who acquired an MBA from Columbia and a seat on the American Stock Exchange? I find myself Googling every name mentioned, so I am surprised the author has not done so too.
Overall, the book is fascinating and riveting despite the sloppy writing and apparent lack of editing. Lownie makes a convincing case for the importance of Burgess as a Soviet agent, detailing the documents he was able to provide to his handlers at each stage of his career. Whether Burgess was MORE important than his fellow spies could not be assessed from a life of just one of them. My one major disappointment from the book was the absence of any discussion of the theory that one or more of the Cambridge Five were known to Britain’s senior spy-masters, long before their departures East, to be Soviet agents and were allowed to remain in place. If you want to deceive your enemy you need to communicate through channels your enemy will likely believe, and that may mean using their own loyal agents (or people they believe to be their loyal agents). Such channels are even more necessary if you mostly communicate to deceive but occasionally want, or may need, to send truthful messages.
Indeed, this hall of mirrors might even have further mirrors, if one or more of Burgess, Maclean, or Philby were themselves witting in this deception, and sacrificed their public reputations, their pensions, and their quiet English country-side retirements to serve the land of their birth even beyond their defection. Lots of Britons gave their lives to defend their country in WWII, so the Cambridge spies may have done similarly.  To my mind, such knowing and self-sacrificing deception by these upper-class Englishmen, students of great public schools and habitués of fashionable London clubs, is immensely more plausible than any other explanation I have seen for their treason. Does MI6 hold secret medals for them all in a hidden safe in its Ziggurat-on-Thames?
Reference:
Andrew Lownie [2015]: Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

Poem: Epitaph

This poem was written by Natalya Gorbanevskaya, upon the death in 1983 of Vadim Delone, her fellow democracy protestor from August 1968.

Epitaph
(On the death of Vadim Delaunay)
Closer than a brother, the first and youngest
of us seven, whence no return.
Sweeter than sweet life, whereas there were seven,
hacking, digging the frozen earth?
To fall asleep that way, and to wake, detached from the earth,
beyond exile, KPP, barbed-wire . . .
beyond the thorny stars.  Pray for us,
offer your fraternal help.

 
Reference:
Natalya Gorbanevskaya [1983/2011]:  Selected Poems. Translated by Daniel Weissbort.  Manchester, UK: Carcanet.
KPP  (Kontrol’no-propusknoi punkt) is Frontier Control Point.

Mao Tse Tung, music teacher

Szabo-Daniel-hands

Learn to “play the piano”. In playing the piano, all ten fingers are in motion; it will not do to move some fingers only and not others. However, if all ten fingers press down at once, there is no melody. To produce good music, the ten fingers should move rhythmically and in co-ordination. A Party committee should keep a firm grasp on its central task and at the same time, around the central task, it should unfold the work in other fields. At present, we have to take care of many fields; we must look after the work in all the areas, armed units and departments, and not give all our attention to a few problems, to the exclusion of others. Wherever there is a problem, we must put our finger on it, and this is a method we must master. Some play the piano well and some badly, and there is a great difference in the melodies they produce. Members of Party committees must learn to “play the piano” well.”

Mao Tse-Tung [1949-03-13]: Methods of Work of Party Committees. Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 379.  The hands are those of Hungarian jazz pianist, Szabo Daniel.

Transitions 2013

People who have passed on during 2013 whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Joan Child (1921-2013), Australian politician, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Commonwealth of Australia
  • Molly Clutton-Brock (1912-2013), British/Zimbabwean community organizer and anti-racism campaigner
  • Peter Geach (1916-2013), British philosopher and logician
  • Norman Geras (1943-2013), Zimbabwean/British political philosopher and blogger
  • Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013), Russian/Polish poet and political activist
  • Michael Heath (1956-2013), American USNavy SEAL and businessman
  • Fr Stan Hosie (1922-2013), Australian/American priest, teacher, swimming coach, life member of the Far North Coast Amateur Swimming Association, and co-founder of the third-world development charity Counterpart International
  • Doris Lessing (1919-2013), Zimbabwean/British writer and political activist
  • John Makumbe (1949-2013), Zimbabwean political scientist and democracy activist
  • Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), South African freedom fighter and political leader
  • Teresa Toranska (1944-2013), Polish journalist and writer.

Last year’s post is here.

Dissident graffiti in Czechoslovakia

MustekStationPrague
In August 1984, I saw a display of cartoons by Jan Bernat, at the Mustek Metro Station in Prague, CSSR.   One cartoon showed a crowd of Western Europeans of various nationalities saying “No”, “Non”, “Nien”, etc, to nuclear weapons, with Ronald Reagan in front of them all and holding a placard saying “YES.
However, some graffitist had scribbled over Reagan’s “YES” and written “NO.

Love and Math

Frenkel Edward 2008Talking of his grandfather who had overcome poverty and blindness to become a US Senator, Gore Vidal once wrote that no challenge is finally insurmountable if you mean to prevail.  I was reminded of this in reading Edward Frenkel’s superb memoir, Love and Math.  Frenkel overcame the widespread and systemic anti-semitism in Soviet Mathematics to establish himself as a world-leading mathematician at a very young age.

Denied entry in 1984 because of his ethnicity to Moscow State University’s (MGU’s) Department of Mechanics and Mathematics (Mekh-Mat), the leading undergraduate mathematics programme in the USSR, he entered instead the mathematics program at Kerosinka, the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas.  Anti-semitism (and anti-Armenianism, anti-Chinese racism, etc) in the admissions process at Mekh-Mat was so widespread, that other Moscow institutions, such as Kerosinka, were able to recruit very good Jewish and minority students.   One theory is that this policy was deliberate, since having all the Jewish mathematicians studying in one or two institutions made their monitoring easier for the KGB.

Frenkel had grown up in Kolomna – only 70 miles from Moscow, but well into the provinces – and had not attended a special mathematics school (as did, for example, Vadim Delone at FizMat #2), nor had an opportunity to participate in the mathematical study circles that were widespread in the larger soviet cities.  He did have the help of a local mathematician, Evgeny Petrov, a professor at a teacher training college in Kolomna.   Frenkel was very fortunate to have such help.   I recall my envy on learning on the first day of lectures in my first year at university that some of my fellow students, who had grown up near to the university, had been meeting our professors for years previously for after-school mentoring and coaching. (On the other hand, even the brightest of my fellow students so mentored ended up winning no Fields Medal, nor even becoming a mathematician.)

Good mathematical undergraduates from Kerosinka and other specialized institutes in Moscow literally scaled the fences at MGU to attend, illegally but often with the encouragement of the teachers, lectures at Mekh-Mat.  Frenkel did this and was again fortunate in being befriended by some very great mentors:  Dmitry Fuchs (now at UC Davis), his student Boris Feigin, and Yakov Khurgin.  Their generous mentoring was unpaid, time-intensive, and often brave, given the society they lived in.   As a result, Frenkel wrote his first research paper in only his second year as an undegraduate, a paper subsequently published in Israel Gelfand’s famous journal, Functional Analysis and Applications.  Gelfand was someone that even my professors, in the 1970s and in faraway Australia, spoke of with awe.

With the opening of perestroika, the Mathematics Department at Harvard University decided to invite some young Soviet mathematicians for research visits, and Frenkel was one of these:  He received his invitation in March 1989, before he had even completed his first degree.  While at Harvard, he had another Russian mentor, Vladimir Drinfeld (now at University of Chicago), and Frenkel completed his PhD there, in 1 year, under the supervision of another Russian, Joseph Bernstein (now at Tel-Aviv).  Frenkel is very generous in his acknowledgement of the support he received from his mentors and from others, and his story warms the heart.  Despite the anti-semitism he experienced, he has prevailed in the end, being now a professor at U-Cal Berkeley (and a film-maker).  Reading his account, I was reminded repeatedly of the ancient spiritual wisdom:  When the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.

Frenkel interleaves his personal story with an account of his changing research focus along the way, a focus which has mostly followed the powerful thread of the Geometric Langlands Programme.   His writing is fluent, wise and witty, and he manages to convey well the excitement and pure, joyous exhilaration that mathematical thinking can provide.  His writing makes most of the underlying mathematical ideas clear to non-experts.  That said, however, the text has a couple of weaknesses, both minor, although both I found irritating.  No one who does not already know something of category theory would understand it, even at a high level, from the single paragraph devoted to it on page 156.   Another minor criticism is that the text does not always adequately explain the diagrams, or what is being done with them.    But then I have particular views about reasoning over diagrams.

In summary, this is a superb book – wise, generous, witty, and heart-warming – and reading it will enlarge your knowledge of mathematics, of the Langlands Program, and of the power of the human spirit.   Everyone in the pure mathematical universe should read it.

An index to posts on the Matherati is here.

Reference:

Edward Frenkel [2013]:  Love and Math:  The Heart of Hidden Reality. New York, NY:  Basic Books.

RIP: Natalia Gorbanevskaya

Natalie Gorbanevska 19677
The death occurred last month of Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013, pictured in 1967), Russian poet and Soviet dissident, and one of the Moscow Seven, brave opponents of the occupation by forces of the Warsaw Pact of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.  From 1975 she lived in exile, initially in Israel and then in France.  For most of this time she was stateless, and did not have a passport until 2006, when granted Polish citizenship.   As in the 19th century, Russia disowns its best and brightest children.  The Economist has an obituary here.
There was more than this one protest against the invasion, with over 200 people involved in protests elsewhere in the USSR and across the Eastern Bloc.  A list of 160 Soviet protesters against the invasion, prepared by Memorial, is here.  The courage of the Moscow Seven and these others has been recognized by the Czech Republic, but not yet by the Russian Federation.   Indeed, Russia has still to apologize to Czechslovakia for the invasion.
From Gorbanevskaya’s poetry (translation by Daniel Weissbort):

The crime has not yet been expunged,
the hour of truth has not yet struck.
logs in the stove still ticking over,
although the fire’s already out.