In the time of corona, some inspiring news from Jerusalem
This is a period in our lives, when we are waking up, turning on the news and hearing numbers thrown at us. And what they all add up to is that more people have been infected by an anonymous virus, thousands more have been tested, and a few are actually dying. And it is the elderly, who seem to be most at threat.
So let me tell you about a little story of an old man in Jerusalem, who until this week was practically unknown, but who is now a hero of numbers. (For my information, I rely heavily on press releases from official sources).
Our story starts in 1918, when the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded by visionaries including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. To date, HU faculty and alumni have secured eight Nobel Prizes.
17 years later, Hillel Furstenberg popped into the world in Berlin. The family survived Kristallnacht and managed to flee in 1939. In America, Hillel became a mathematician. When one of his earliest academic papers was published, rumors began to circulate that “Furstenberg” wasn’t an individual but rather a pseudonym for a group of mathematicians.
He emigrated to Israel in 1965 and helped to consolidate the Hebrew University as a world class institution in his field. He won many prizes over the years.
This week, Furstenberg, along with Gregory Margulis from Yale University, secured the Abel Prize from Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. This is the equibvalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics. The citation mentions their “pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics”.
Ironically, Russian-born Margulis shared a similar background to Furstenberg. He was also heralded as a leading mathematician from a young age. And being Jewish in the Soviet Union meant that Margulis was unable to secure a job at Moscow University and eventually emigrated, also to the United States.
We are facing enormous global adversity. These gentlemen have shown what can be achieved, despite everything. They have also illustrated to us mortals have numbers can be used for happier subjects.
Take a moment to bask in their triumph. Wishing everyone well and safe.