Fiction Issue - THIRD PLACE: Mathematics for Life

Love ain't easy to figure out

Acclaimed mathematician and Georgia Tech professor Athena Misrahi died July 22 in Atlanta.

Obituaries of that nature didn't include me, Terry Sias, among her close relations. But now that her family has said goodbye, I need to stake my claim. No matter what I was to Athena, she transformed me forever.

Here's one last tribute, so I can put my memories to rest and continue the work she didn't even know she inspired.

3. Three cultures mingled to produce the woman I knew as Athena: Greek, Jewish, and American. Her mother, an English teacher, and father, a mathematician, were children of refugees from Thessaloniki, where the Nazis snapped the roots of thousands of potential family trees.

They wanted their daughter to be wise and brave, and to remember the far-off Mediterranean land of her grandparents. The name Athena, with its pagan origins, set her apart from other children at her Jewish day school, and helped ensure she'd be reading alone during recess.

1. Athena's father, Solomon, spent many nights and weekends in his basement office because of one problem: the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of mathematics. If this conjecture were shown to be true, we would know more than ever about the distribution of prime numbers. But since 1859, it had resisted the efforts of some of the world's best mathematicians.

When Athena learned to multiply and divide, her father explained that prime numbers are special because they can only be divided by themselves and 1. There's no formula for them: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 ... But a confirmed Riemann's Hypothesis would help explain why they seem so random. Prime numbers have lots of uses in Internet security, but Solomon was chasing the beauty of the Hypothesis itself.

4. Athena was in fourth grade when doctors found a tumor in her father's lung. In the hospital waiting room, Athena would stare at the digits pi on the back cover of her textbook: 3.141592653589793238 ... just like with prime numbers, and her father's health, she couldn't calculate what would come next.

1. "Who Knows One" ("Echad Mi Yodea" in Hebrew) was Athena's favorite song at Passover seders. This song reviews the significance of the numbers one through 13 in the Torah — One God, two tablets of the covenant, three patriarchs, four matriarchs, etc.

"My wise child will find more numbers," her father whispered in a hospital bed. "Finish my work for me."

5. Solomon Misrahi left behind five notebooks of what he considered progress on the Riemann Hypothesis. At first, Athena resented him for sticking her with this gibberish.

Math in high school was boring; she hated calculus and didn't see the point of statistics.

But in college, she became fascinated with the manipulation of symbols, and quickly advanced in number theory.

"The whole universe seemed like a code to crack," she told me later.

She genuinely wanted to finish what her father had started. First, though, she'd have to get through academia by doing what many of her own instructors appeared to hate most: teaching.

9. Nine students enrolled in the first course that Athena, then a postdoctoral fellow, ever taught alone: Mathematics for Life. The Georgia Tech administration insisted that this course couldn't count as a requirement for any major. What she had envisioned as a 200-person lecture would be a small seminar. And it would not have a classroom.

That's why, one crisp September day, she dragged a large tablet down Marietta Street to Octane Coffee.

2. When I arrived at Octane, there were two empty chairs in front of a short raven-haired woman scribbling "Mathematics for Life" in sloppy, loopy letters. I chose the one on the left.

"Hi, I'm Terry, I'm in the business school," I said. "I wanted to take an interesting class before I sell my soul to a Fortune 500 company," Really, I went to business school because I wasn't sure what else to do — my primary desire was to live a comfortable life.

"Better you should consider your soul your fortune, and nurture its interests for what life you have," she said. Her eyes seemed to glow, then mellow out to soft brown. "But you're here, so it's a step."

6. The course only lasted six weeks, but I probably learned more in those six weeks than in all of my math education.

"Children do not get ready for mathematics by doing problem sets and taking exams," she said. "It's boring. If you are bored, you should leave."

We all laughed. We wished this class met every day — at least I did.

How exciting Dr. Misrahi made everything seem! The mundane methods I had learned in school — manipulating numbers, solving for variables, calculating volumes — suddenly came alive with stories about the people who came up with these ideas.

I started thinking differently about the shapes of buildings, the way that water flows from a spigot — even the slope of her neck.

For our final assignment, we each had to give a presentation to the entire math department.

I chose Euclid as my subject because there's so little known about him. "I have a terrific book about Euclid at my apartment," my teacher said. "You can come pick it up tomorrow afternoon around 5. It's 888 Peachtree, number 314."

"That's a funny coincidence," I said. "You live in the pi apartment."

"It is not a coincidence. It is the way the universe had it. And sometimes, the universe is funny," she said.

5. At 5 p.m. the next day, I parked my car in a small lot surrounded by decaying storefronts that used to be a bakery and a fast-food noodle restaurant. My palms warmed as I looked up "Misrahi" in the call box of her apartment building. Before I found it, a man opened the main door and held it for me with a smile. I stepped through and took the elevator to the third floor.

As I walked down a hallway of ascending numbers on doors, I heard a scream from #314. Prepared to save my teacher from unspeakable harm, I turned the knob and entered, only to find a television floating in a sea of papers, with books arranged like life rafts among a fleet of chairs and couches. The television screamed again as a shadowy figure stabbed Janet Leigh's character in Psycho.

A doorknob squeaked. A woman wrapped in a fluffy blue towel walked toward me. Her hair was wet and wild around her bare shoulders. I couldn't stop looking. I couldn't move.

"Hi!" I said.

3. She took three steps forward. What cute red toenails she had.

5. "I'm here at 5, just like you said!" I tried again.

Her eyes turned to fire. She pushed me against the door and threw my glasses on the floor. To my naked eyes, her face became less like a photograph and more like a watercolor.

"What did you see?" she asked. "What did you take?"

"Nothing! It's Terry, your student! You told me to come here to get the Euclid book, remember?"

She slammed her sandaled foot on my glasses.

"Did no one teach you to knock?"

"The door was open. Do you always keep it open? It's been pretty dangerous around here ever since the noodle place closed—"

"The only dangerous thing right now is you."

"No — look, I'm sorry I barged in here. I just came for the book, really."

She looked at the floor.

"I am ... sorry. It's a bad time right now for me." She turned to the paper ocean. "As you can see, work is not going so well."

"No, I can't see much of anything now. You broke my glasses."

Her face pinkened as she knelt down to pick up the shattered spectacles.

"Ugly before, useless now. I will buy you new ones."

8. Eight weeks after I gave my Euclid presentation, bespectacled in sleek Ray-Ban frames, I went to Octane as if class were still in session. I'd spent winter break reading about the imaginary number i, since Athena hadn't had time for it in class. Beyond that, my imagination had been fixated on our encounter in her apartment. What a quick temper she had! How pretty she looked in a towel! I wanted to know so much more.

I found Athena on her usual stool — back straight, head up, hands resting on stacks of papers. A goddess, indeed.

"A funny coincidence, maybe?" she asked when she saw me.

We spoke for three hours as if we had planned it that way. I had to ask: Did she enjoy her work?

"My father would say he felt closer to God when he worked," she said. "I understand that now. What else is God except the structure of the universe that we can't see?"

9. We met like this nine times before I offered to give her a ride home; she walked everywhere, after all. Rain poured as we darted across Peachtree Street and up to her apartment. In her kitchen, my right hand touched her cheek.

"You will never be ready for me," she said.

"I'm ready to not be ready," I said.

7. Athena was seven years older but, at that time, I was more mature than my 24 years. Oh, who am I kidding — I was a child.

9. I installed nine shelves in Athena's apartment so she'd have categorized compartments to keep her papers. It took about nine hours to arrange them to her satisfaction.

We quickly decided that our "seminar" should meet on weekends, too, and that I would teach her about Atlanta entertainment. I took her to concerts, plays, movies — anything to expose her to the culture she didn't make time for otherwise.

It took some convincing, but we went contra dancing in Clarkston, and she smiled the whole time. And she loved our summer picnic at Providence Canyon, although her mood turned grayer when I revealed that this petite version of Arizona's natural wonder was made by poor farming practices.

But when Tech rejected her proposal for another installment of Mathematics for Life, she started treating me as the cause of all of her problems. She blamed me for her inability to focus, her poor luck in publishing papers, and a lack of phone calls from her former dissertation advisor about a breakthrough she thought she'd had.

One morning I woke up in her bed alone with nine stinging red quarter-moons on my left arm, which she'd been squeezing all night.

"We are bad for each other," she said, throwing me my clothes. "Please don't come here again."

I don't know how many months went by — the dearth of voicemails and emails from her distorted my sense of time — before I saw a lean bearded man in a polo shirt holding her hand in Piedmont Park. "I do think we are close, darling," I heard him say, with a British accent.

"Close to what?" I wondered.

The Technique had the answer: Athena Misrahi and Peter Aardvark, photographed together at Octane, had published a compelling new argument for the Riemann Hypothesis. Athena had told me it was her father's passion, although that article didn't say so.

"Aardvark was Misrahi's dissertation advisor at Princeton, where the two began to tackle the problem," the Technique wrote. "Misrahi and Aardvark, who joined the Tech faculty in September, will continue their quest to defeat the great beast of mathematics."

I showed up at her apartment unannounced, pounding on the door three times hard and once softly (our custom).

"So this is it?" I asked her, stepping on papers in the doorway. "You left me so you can prove the Riemann Hypothesis in bed?"

"My work trumps, all. All. You may have given a nice little talk on Euclid, but you have no idea what I am capable of."

"I know what you're not capable of, Athena! You're not capable of controlling your temper. Or keeping your apartment clean. Or keeping friends. I bet this Aardvark is just using you so that he can put his name on the papers that you publish!"

"Look, I don't have time to play anymore. I'm 34 years old. My father published his greatest work in number theory when he was 31. I need to do my very best, Terry. You need to grow up, and do whatever it is you want. I don't think you know what that is."

3. Three months later, I graduated from business school with the same bitterness pressing against my chest as that day.

Fortunately, entry-level financial analysts at Damon & Smithers in Buckhead don't have a lot of time to think about how they feel. I quickly learned the art of inputting data into Excel spreadsheets and summarizing 50-page reports faster than my colleagues. Sometimes I'd go to lunch with business school classmates in slightly higher-paying positions who had heated debates over the merits of buying a Mercedes over a BMW. I didn't say much more than "Hey" and "Bye" to anyone in a day.

Mr. Damon seemed to like that I didn't say much; to him, it meant I'd stay in the office longer hours without complaint. Another $20,000 for committing to 14-hour days? Of course I'd be right for the job!

2. But there were two choices. Two lives.

Before accepting my promotion, I got an email from Walter Rhodes, a classmate from College Park whom I hadn't seen since Tech graduation. He was starting a nonprofit called STEM From Atlanta, and wanted to recruit teachers. "We aim to create after-school programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for the city's worst schools," he wrote.

"Where are you getting money?" I typed.

"We haven't gotten that far," he wrote back. "Want to help? You could be our chief financial officer."

I couldn't sleep through a single night. In dreams, Athena broke my glasses in half, smashed my computer monitor, and set fire to my closet. And I woke up wishing that had been reality; I felt so much more alive in my mind's distortions than in waking life.

A call from Walter in June broke the cycle. "If you want in, it has to be now," he said. "We have the summer for fundraising and training, then it's show time."

I wouldn't have much of a salary, but I didn't care. STEM From Atlanta needed to blossom. And so did I.

3. For the past three years, instead of working for large corporations, I have put my soul into getting them to give us money. I moved from Buckhead to West End, so I could walk to some of the schools we service and teach, too.

At first, a lot of the kids just doodled or passed notes, but when I started putting technology in their terms — the computers they used, the movies they watched, the music they listened to — suddenly every eye was on me. "I wanna design computers, too, Terry," a third-grader named Lucas told me one day.

My apartment started to look like Athena's as I drafted grant proposals, revised teaching manuals, and made lists of potential subjects. Three women other than my mother have seen the place, and both said they'd prefer not to spend time there, if that'd be OK. But it wasn't OK. This was where I worked on the most important thing in the world to me, in the shadow of my former most important person.

More important than either of us are the children. I've thought of every child I've taught as a genius in the making, even those on the edge of failing out. When I see them work through math problems on their own, and I know I'm in the right place.

I've gotten phone calls from parents at all hours, especially when the SAT is coming up, and never turn anyone away. But I refuse to teach standardized testing unless a kid is willing to hear me talk about why math can be fun otherwise. I use some of Athena's examples and throw in my own from finance and economics — I didn't go to business school for nothing, after all.

8. Atlanta still has daylight at 8 p.m. in the summer, unless there's a storm like the one on July 22.

On that day, at that time, Athena got off a bus on Fair Street to teach Mathematics for Life for Spelman College summer students. Police told local newspapers she must have slipped in the flooding street before a red Honda swerved too far to the right.

4. I didn't learn about this accident until four days after it happened. Peter Aardvark called my office to make a donation in the name of his late wife Athena. A $1 million donation.

He explained that he had expanded upon Athena's work to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, and the Clay Mathematics Institute was going to award them $1 million for their collective breakthrough. He wanted to give the entire amount to STEM From Atlanta.

I put him on speakerphone so that I could bury my face in my hands.

"She'd been visiting some of your programs, and said this is the best thing happening in Atlanta education," he continued, oblivious to my sobs. "I think she'd have liked to be part of it."

Etc. "The digits of pi march on in an apparently random progression without ever stopping, but somehow their exact ordering is part of the ratio of circumference to diameter of a perfect circle. Its messiness is perfection. And so we must appreciate the randomness in our lives, because it is giving us order, too."

Athena told us this during one of those blissful seminars at Octane. It keeps me going.

I think she would like to be remembered as such, with her life following pi's digits until it can't anymore, just like all of us must ultimately fall short of infinity.

More By This Writer

No results for query.
Search for more by Elizabeth Landau

[Admin link: Fiction Issue - THIRD PLACE: Mathematics for Life]