Masha Gessen: Russia's Conquering Zeros

Roundup: Talking About History

[Masha Gessen's latest book is "Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century," a story of Grigory Perelman and the Poincaré Conjecture. She lives in Moscow and is the author of three previous books.]

It may be no accident that, while some of the best American mathematical minds worked to solve one of the century's hardest problems—the Poincaré Conjecture—it was a Russian mathematician working in Russia who, early in this decade, finally triumphed.

Decades before, in the Soviet Union, math placed a premium on logic and consistency in a culture that thrived on rhetoric and fear; it required highly specialized knowledge to understand; and, worst of all, mathematics lay claim to singular and knowable truths—when the regime had staked its own legitimacy on its own singular truth. All this made mathematicians suspect. Still, math escaped the purges, show trials and rule by decree that decimated other Soviet sciences.

Three factors saved math. First, Russian math happened to be uncommonly strong right when it might have suffered the most, in the 1930s. Second, math proved too obscure for the sort of meddling Joseph Stalin most liked to exercise: It was simply too difficult to ignite a passionate debate about something as inaccessible as the objective nature of natural numbers (although just such a campaign was attempted). And third, at a critical moment math proved immensely useful to the state.

Three weeks after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviet air force had been bombed out of existence. The Russian military set about retrofitting civilian airplanes for use as bombers. The problem was, the civilian airplanes were much slower than the military ones, rendering moot everything the military knew about aim.

What was needed was a small army of mathematicians to recalculate speeds and distances to let the air force hit its targets.

The greatest Russian mathematician of the 20th century, Andrei Kolmogorov, led a classroom of students, armed with adding machines, in recalculating the Red Army's bombing and artillery tables. Then he set about creating a new system of statistical control and prediction for the Soviet military...

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