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Faces of Penn State, 2005: Yakov Pesin

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Distinguished Professor of Mathematics

“Life in the Soviet Union wasn’t easy. I had a family. We spent a lot of meaningless time in long lines to buy something trivial. That makes you even more devoted to doing what makes huge sense to you. Come to work, do something, then go to Moscow University at night and do something incredibly interesting.”

Years at Penn State: 14, as of 2005

Professional background: Penn State (1990 to present, distinguished professor / professor); scientific researcher at research institutes in Moscow, USSR (1970-1984)

Academic background: Doctoral degree, Gorky State University, USSR (1979); Master’s degree with honors and Bachelor’s degree, Moscow State University, USSR (1970 and 1968)

Winter 2005 -- Maybe it was the world-class opera, concert hall, and ballet Yakov Pesin grew up with in his hometown of Moscow. Maybe it was the beauty of the subway stations, where Soviet-supported artists created superb mosaics. But somehow, Yakov Pesin, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, came to the United States with an intense love of the beauty of mathematics.

“Math is the art of science,” Pesin said. “It can be explained without long boring formulas or arguments no one seems to understand. The history of math is full of many intriguing detective stories, and if kids were taught these stories they would love it like they love Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie or anyone else.”

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Pesin also developed persistence in the face of a government that would not use his mathematical talents to their fullest, but instead relegated him to an “unbelievably stupid job” programming in code at an obscure institute in Moscow. “So I did math after work,” Pesin said, smiling. Math, he said, was a safe haven for hundreds of talented intellectuals who preferred not to have their work used for ideological purposes.

This was Pesin’s life for almost twenty years, until he was able to emigrate to the United States as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago for a semester. “I had little idea about how the system works in the U.S.,” Pesin said. “Unemployment was an abstraction, something from Mars.” Thankfully, it wasn’t long before offers for permanent positions came pouring in and Pesin decided to make Penn State his home.

He describes his work as the underlying “pure” mathematics that supports research in chaotic dynamics, a combination of the mathematical theory of mechanics—stating that the physical world can be predicted with the correct equations—and the classical theory of “randomness,” or naturally occurring chaos. His work supports the theory that both can exist simultaneously, as it does in computer programs that generate random numbers, for example, or that model the weather. “We think we can predict weather because we can compute the behavior of every single element, but it turns out we can’t always predict it even a day before,” he said.

As Pesin discusses examples of entertaining, yet challenging, mathematical problems for young people, there’s an echo of political wisdom in his words, that world leaders could have used years ago, when nuclear annihilation was just one button away. “When we put our mind in a very narrow place we impose this condition on ourselves,” he said. “Math tries to teach you to get rid of these extra constraints, to see things much broader, and once you can do that, you can understand the beauty of mathematics. Give kids some examples of this type, and they start to like mathematics. At the very least they will stop hating it,” he said, chuckling. “I dream about that.”

Suzan Erem

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