A Look at Anti-Semitic University Admissions in the USSR From the Perspective of a Leading Mathematician and Why It Matters
What is it like living in a society which institutionalized bigotry and racism? We can read historical accounts and documents from the past, but there is always a historical context, a formal distance. Also, there is a matter of language. While the words may be familiar that is not necessarily so for context and meaning. The vernacular of one era is not the same as it is for another and those distances are made greater with the passage of time.
That is why it is important to understand the real meaning of bigotry and racism in our own times and in our own vernacular. When we can readily and immediately relate to the insidiousness of racism, our understanding of hate is heightened and more pronounced. When the reality of hate is more immediate we are less likely to tolerate hate in our midst.
To truly understand the impact of hate can help us understand our own past- and that is a good thing. The lessons learned make us better.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, I thought math was a stale, boring subject.1 I could solve all of the problems and ace all of the exams at school, but what we discussed in class seemed pointless, irrelevant. What really excited me was Quantum Physics. I devoured all the popular books on this subject I could get my hands on. But these books didn’t go far enough in answering deeper questions about the structure of the universe, so I wasn’t fully satisfied.
As luck would have it, I got help from a family friend. I grew up in a small industrial town called Kolomna, population 150 thousand, which was about seventy miles away from Moscow, or just over two hours by train. My parents worked as engineers at a large company, making heavy machinery. One of their friends was a mathematician by the name of Evgeny Evgenievich Petrov, who was a professor at a local college preparing school teachers. A meeting was arranged.
Then in his late forties, Evgeny Evgenievich was friendly and unassuming. Bespectacled and with beard stubble, he was just like what I imagined a mathematician would look like, and yet there was something captivating in the probing gaze of his big eyes. They exuded curiosity about everything. Knowing that I was fascinated with the quantum world, he convinced me that spectacular advances in this field were all based on hardcore mathematics.
“If you really want to understand it, you have to first learn math,” he said.
At school we studied things like quadratic equations, basic Euclidean geometry, and trigonometry. I had always assumed that all mathematics somehow revolved around these subjects: perhaps problems became more complicated, but they still remained within the same general framework with which I was familiar. But what Evgeny Evgenievich showed me were the glimpses of an entirely different world, an invisible parallel universe, whose existence I hadn’t even imagined. It was love at first sight.