It has been my drug, my meditation, my weapon and my best friend. It fed and dressed me, led to travel, men, lavish parties and even Cuban cigars. It has placed my name on a movie screen, put my work in museums, and allowed me to manipulate cells deep inside the human brain. It is called Math.
In Russia, where I was a child in the 80’s, math was respected and celebrated as a tool of progress and technological advance. It was presented to school children as a toy with tricky wrapping that one had to outwit to open. We were challenged and encouraged to tackle it. Indeed, math has become the toy of my life, my key to the world, leading me across continents, opening doors to exciting projects and people, and even assisting in the realm of romance.
I was in high school, when I applied math to my love life for the first time. I fell in love, and barricaded in the heavy, still vacuum of my room, was desperately counting clock ticks, waiting for “the call” from the only person whose existence mattered. My brain was justifying the silence by devising elaborate excuses for why he hadn’t called “yet.”
It suddenly occurred to me that insecure, self-pitying anticipation could be turned into a confidence-boosting calculation of the probability of his call. What are the chances of his call, given the rumors of another girlfriend he may have had? I played with the concept of conditional probability in my mind. How does the likelihood of him being interested diminish with each passing day without a call? The results did not look promising. My attention, however, was diverted from the lost "love of my life" to a world of quiet concentration where I was queen, which significantly shrank his importance. Mathematically directing myself away from loveless depression, I tuned in to the world again and realized there would be many more love adventures to enjoy.
Immigrating to Israel, I discovered that math, more so than my religion, connected me to the young people in my new country. We spoke and read different languages, we lived through different histories, had very different worries, but we all studied math with Hindu-Arabic numerals and learned the same rules of logic. I met my future husband in a graduate math class. At that time we did not speak a common dialect but shared the language of math. Life was easy.
A rainbow of hip vocations presented themselves after I attained my math degree. The first came with delicious benefits. I was creating a product database at a chocolate factory. They had an “all you can eat at work” policy...
The coolest job of all was in movie special effects. The setting was like a dream: on the ocean side of Los Angeles, in a quiet nightclub atmosphere, in an abandoned military hangar, lit by a web of Christmas lights and lava lamps, surrounded by a life-size Princess Leah statue and old Star Wars spaceships, accompanied by a pet parrot. We, computer graphic programmers and animators, were making Hollywood history and immortalizing characters on the big screen.
With math I have helped move Godzilla through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, and created a Monet-style animation of rap singer Puff Daddy, while experimenting with painting-by-numbers. Inspired by a brilliant talk at a SIGGRAPH conference, I tried to digitally erase the cat's whiskers for the movie “Stuart Little.” An affair with another novel technology led me to use a reflective ball to capture the direction of the sun in a vast South Carolina field when shooting the movie “Patriot.” Some experiments worked and some did not, but the math behind them was thrilling, adventurous and playful.
I earned my Green Card by meticulously planning a hi-jack attempt on Air Force One. It was returning from a summit in Moscow and carrying Harrison Ford as President of the United States. Our team of animators and engineers helped all the explosions look realistic, simulated Air Force One refueling in the air, and made everyone believe that the President had escaped from the plane in a computer-generated pod we created for him, which was dropped through computer-generated doors at the bottom of the plane. I even had a chance to meet the President, I mean Harrison Ford, at the Sony stage, along with other actors who were practicing jumping from a plane in front of a giant air blower. We celebrated the movie opening with an extravagant Hollywood party that included Cuban cigars.
After 9/11 I thought I could help defend my third homeland, the U.S., from terrorism by teaching computers to recognize suspicious behaviors. I abandoned the idea when I realized that my system would have detected me as one of the false-positives, when after a 15 hour trans-atlantic flight with two little kids, sleep-deprived and afraid of admitting to smuggling an apple in my bag, I would be nervously avoiding a gaze of security men.
Instead, I joined forces against an even broader insidious enemy – cancer. In radio surgery, we use nifty math algorithms to target the cancer tumor with the precision of a single hair, radiating and killing the cancer cells while minimizing the damage to surrounding tissue. Math also offered a horrifying thrill when I assisted with brain surgery procedures on a death row inmate known to have killed his cell-mate back in 2005.
Now, ensconced in the mature days of parenthood, I am titillated by entertaining mathematics in our daily family routines. When figuring out the meaning of a double-negation note from school: “Please mark yes or no below if your child will not attend school on Friday.” When convincing myself to buy $250 winter boots because their cost-per-wear appears reasonably small: $250 / (100 cold days x 3 years ) = less than $1 per wear. When advising my son when to jump from the swing in order to enjoy the longest flight into the sand. Or, when finding an optimal home location that will minimize our family's combined commute time.
I am trying to pass on my math infatuation in the same manner that one passes traditions and language through generations. My 5-year old daughter runs around playing super girl and sings, “I can be anything I want to be.” I believe that the love of math may be the real super power that I can share with her, that will bring magic to her life journey.