Math and Music

for the moment

At the tender age of 27, Noam Elkies became Harvard's youngest-ever tenured professor in 19993. But there's more to Elkies than an incredible talent for mathematics--he's an accomplished musician with a unique sense of humor.

Elkies spent eight years of his youth in Israel, and hecame to New York City having read a Hebrew translation of Euclid but without any significant knowledge of English. He was accepted into the prestigious Stuyvesant High School on the strength of his almost-perfect score on the mathematical portion of their admissions test, although he flunked the English section. "I had already been doing advanced work for my age in both music and math when I got [to New York]," Elkies recalls.

While his skills helped him on New York's "very extensive circcuit" of competitions in mathematics, Elkies points out the differences between theoretical research and quick application of existing theory. "They always remind you that the ability to solve two problems in 10 minutes is not highly correlated with the ability to do good mathematics."

During his undergraduate years at Columbia, Elkies focused more on research. Wait a minute--Columbia? What made this math whiz choose New York's pale imitation of Harvard? "Poor judgment?" says Elkies, by way of explanation. "I was glad I was able to finish in only three years."

Elkies, who now speaks perfect English with a slight accent, stayed at Stuyvesant for three years and simultaneously enrolled in the Julliard School's pre-college program for musicians. He started playing piano when he was three years old, and began "filling sheets of music with notes" before he was four.


Formal lessons in piano and composition began at age six. Elkies says he wrote about 300 pieces, all of which his mother has kept in a notebook, when he was very young. He jokes about most of the pieces, "It's just as well that they're stuck in that notebook."

His lesser-known musical talents include singing and the ability to whistle one melodic line, hum another, and (sometimes) play a piano score at the same time.. a veritable one-man trio. "I didn't learn to whistle until about six years ago," he remembers. "Once I learned how to whistle to begin with, it wasn't that much harder [to hum at the same time]." Elkies explains that as a pianist, he was already accustomed to controlling several different musical lines at once.

A more chimerical aspect of Elkies' musical life is his singing. In exactly which register is he most at home? "I have to sing bass in the Glee Club," he responds, adding that "I have sung tenor under duress, and alto under the influence!" His voice, however, is not Elkies' real forte: "It might still be conceivable [for me] to get a career as a professional musician, but not as a singer."

As a listener, Elkies mainly attends concerts on- and offcampus. When he has a chance, Elkies relies heavily on WHRB and the Loeb Music Library for recorded listening. But he rarely accompanies his work with tunes--"I can't really stand to have background music."

Elkies's tastes in 'classical' music include "anything from the sixteenth century to the present," and he recently started listening to jazz as anything but silly pop music until three years ago, and now I occasionally make believe I'm playing it," he says. But listening cannot claim to be his first love: "It's between composing and playing, definitely."

Elkies has recently moved into a new office at the Science Center, so his decorating is sparse. At home, his walls bear posters from the Glee Club and M. C. Escher as well as a cloth hanging his mother made with a "nice geometric design."

These days, his research centers on lattices in high-dimensional spaces, specifically four-mani-folds and the geometry of four-dimensional space. Elkies' expertise lies out side high-dimensional geometries, but he found when confronted with a major problem in the field that "one of the questions could be stated and solved without that background."

In his teaching, Elkies perennially addresses a variety of topics. "In many departments," he ics. "In many departments," he explain, "You have courses that are the domain of Prof. X. In the math department, out of 15 halfcourses you teach in five years, 12 could be different courses."

Elkies says he tries to convey three significant ideas about mathematics to his students: "A) Math is something people can enjoy, B) they enjoy it for a good reason and C) it's still going on." Elkies actively challenges the idea that mathematicians today only fine-tune existing theory; he contends that many interesting problems remain unsolved.

Elkies did agree to answer one personal question-how best to deal with the dining hall at Lowell House, now his non-resident affiliation. "I've been here since '87," he answers grinning, "And you should eat the same way as you eat in England: Eat a big breakfast and leave wellenough alone!" But Elkies swiftly mention's the dining hall's relative virtues. "It's not the Four Seasons," he adds, "but it's not the Freshman Union either."