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Random Curves: Journeys of a Mathematician

Neal Koblitz
Publication Date: 
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[Reviewed by
Darren Glass
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We've all had the experience: you're at a cocktail party or a dinner with a group of acquaintances, and one person in the group starts telling stories and the next thing you know everyone is gathered around them listening to this person tell anecdote after anecdote about their travels and their work and their political beliefs. And inevitably someone makes the comment to the person that they should really write these stories down for a memoir. Most people I know just laugh off such a suggestion — or possibly start writing a blog — but at the Crypto 2006 conference something similar happened to Neal Koblitz and he took these suggestions seriously. He decided to write an autobiography, and the resulting book Random Curves: Journeys of a Mathematician has recently been published by Springer Verlag.

Koblitz is a number theorist at the University of Washington who has written a number of books about things such as p-adic numbers and elliptic curves. But don't be intimidated by those words if they do not mean anything to you, as Random Curves contains very little actual mathematics and instead focuses on Koblitz's life and his many journeys. After a brief opening chapter about his childhood, Koblitz writes of the years he spent at Harvard and his initial reluctance and later embracing of the political movements on that campus in the late 1960s. He writes of his involvement with Students for a Democratic Society and the Progressive Labor Party, as well as the protests he participated in through these organizations. While he doesn't always give the full context of these organizations and their actions, his stories give interesting insights into the workings of student activist groups in the 1960s, and the conflicts they faced both internally and externally. Shortly after graduation, Koblitz gets drafted into the army, where he continues his political activism. This eventually led to a court-martial, during which he passed time in the stockades by reading Serge Lang's Algebra while others read the Bible. Upon his release, Koblitz moves to Princeton and attends graduate school to continue his academic career.

While the tone of Koblitz's political activism changes over time, his strongly held beliefs do not. The next chapters of the book deal with specific countries and the travels which he and his wife Ann take to different parts of the world for reasons both academic and political (and occasionally recreational). They spend significant time in the Soviet Union, Nicaragua, Cuba, Peru, El Salvador, and Vietnam. It is during travels to the latter country that they decided to start The Kovalevskaia Fund, a nonprofit organization named after the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaia and established in order to encourage women in developing countries to pursue mathematics and science education. These chapters serve as a travelogue as well as an autobiography, and give a different perspective on some of the countries than one might find elsewhere.

The final chapters of Random Curves are devoted more towards pontificating than towards autobiography. There is a chapter about the "Two Cultures" within academia, which is dedicated to discussing the differences between mathematics and the other sciences, the sciences and the humanities, and faculty and administration on a variety of issues. Koblitz' stories — about sexual discrimination, political retaliation, and unfairness in hiring and promotion in academia — are told to outrage the reader, and they certainly do outrage.

Koblitz's inflammatory style of writing will come as no surprise to anyone who read his recent article in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society entitled The Uneasy Relationship Between Mathematics and Cryptography", (as well as some of the ensuing controversy) which is adapted from a chapter of Random Curves dedicated to cryptography in which Koblitz criticizes many aspects of the cryptographic community. There is another chapter dedicated to Koblitz's experiences with (and opinions about) math education, at the University level but also in middle schools in Seattle as well as his observations from education around the world.

What all of these chapters — as well as a number of other comments sprinkled throughout the book — have in common is that Koblitz writes as though his reader is bound to agree with his opinions, whether they are about the immorality of the Vietnam War, the poor treatment of women in academia, or the inferiority of today's college students compared to those of yesteryear. Rather than trying to give a complete view of the situation with a reasoned argument of why he is right about the issue, Koblitz chooses to illustrate his points with stories which seem more designed to rally the troops and energize the people who likely already agree with him. While this is a common rhetorical tactic and is the kind of thing I would expect from cocktail party conversation, it seems a bit jarring to read in book format, and more than once I wanted to interrupt him to refute a point or ask for the other side of the story.

Of course, it doesn't do much good to interrupt a book, and in the end Koblitz's book is exactly what it is. If you want insight into what the life of a mathematician in the second half of the twentieth century is like or if you are looking for gossip about the Princeton and Harvard math departments in the 60s and 70s, then you should look elsewhere. Instead, Koblitz has written down a number of anecdotes and stories from his own life experiences, most of which have little to do with mathematics directly, and reading them makes you feel like you are sitting at the dinner table letting Koblitz hold court. And if you are willing to forgive a few statements that are not well backed-up, and a few digressions about his wife's job search that go on longer than one may like, and a style and quality of writing that one might not tolerate from a professional biographer, then Random Curves is a fun read and an interesting insight into the mind of a prolific and active mathematician.

Darren Glass is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Gettysburg College. He can be reached at [email protected].

Early Years.- Harvard.- SDS.- The Army.- Spring of 1972.- Academics.- The Soviet Union.- Racism and Apartheid.- Vietnam. Part I.- Vietnam. Part II.- Nicaragua and Cuba.- El Salvador.- Two Cultures.- Cryptography.- Education.- Arizona.- Index.