Fifteen Minutes: Gnoshin' with Noam

"He is the youngest professor ever tenured at Harvard," said Lowell house math concentrator Sameer Satija '01. True. "He has
By Tom Castillo

"He is the youngest professor ever tenured at Harvard," said Lowell house math concentrator Sameer Satija '01. True. "He has the best endgame in the world," said Pranav Anand '01, another Lowell math concentrator. Nope. "But he did lose to the A.B.P. chess master," Anand added. That part's true. "I've heard he can bench about 300 pounds," Heidi K. Kim '01 said. Maybe, but he'll never admit it. Professor of Mathematics Noam Elkies is something of a Harvard living legend, though he doesn't really understand why.

If you ask him about his talent and accomplishments in math, music, and chess, he'll be quick to tell you there are people more accomplished than he in each, even at this very school. Sure, but can they do all three? And whistle and hum in counterpoint? (A neat trick where he whistles a tune while simultaneously humming the accompaniment. And yes—he does take requests).

Among students and faculty alike, any mention of his name is usually accompanied by a quick glance around, a devious smile, and hunched-over, half-whispered anecdotes about the man. Why all the attention? Maybe because he's very smart. Maybe because he wears very big glasses. But one major reason is definitely his visibility—Prof. Elkies is a very Harvard guy. He's been here 17 of his 36 years, and can often be found in Lowell House, the math department or even the MAC.

"As an freshman here, Noam Elkies took Math 55, but he was so good they told him that he should start graduate classes," math concentrator Damian Wishiewski '01 said. Actually, Elkies admits that he "unfortunately" didn't attend Harvard as an undergraduate. He graduated from Columbia College in 1985, so he never took the intense, boot-camp-for-math-concentrators course known as Math 55. Although he does teach it right now.

Before Columbia, Elkies attended Stuyvesant High School in his native New York City, a high school known for its strength in math and science. He was born in Manhattan in 1966, where he lived several years before moving to Israel, then came back to New York in 1978. Growing up, of course, he had always been good at math.

"My parents kept a detailed journal of my early years, and they recorded that I was doing arithmetic before I was 3 years old," Elkies said. "But in high school, I didn't start Calculus until 11th grade, which seems hopelessly late these days."

At the same time, however, he began winning big competitions. In both 1981 and 1982, he placed first in the U.S.A. Math Olympiad, and won a Gold Medal at the International Math Olympiad (with a perfect score in 1981). About this time, he realized he could make a living doing mathematics.

"Often in mathematics you discover a marvelous result, then find it's already been done. This happens all the time as a student, when you often find your supposed discoveries a mere 10 pages ahead in the textbook," Elkies said. But sometimes you get lucky. Work stemming from his Olympiad training led to his first published discovery. Apparently something of a boy-wonder, he came to Harvard for graduate school at 19, got his Ph.D. at 20, an assistant professorship at 23, and was tenured a month before his 27th birthday in 1993.

"He was so young when he was made a professor that some students mistook him for a freshman," said an anonymous physics concentrator. "One year, a group of freshman started hanging out with him, trying to help him be more social and fit in with the other freshmen," he added.

No, this never happened, but Elkies has had other problems. "I still get carded," he said. "Some people even ask me if I'm a junior. Really, I'm more like a 36-semester senior."

His lightning-fast rise through academia drew plenty of attention. Another rumor held that he was on Time magazine's list of the 30 most influential people under 30. Well, almost. The now defunct Swing magazine told Elkies they were interviewing him for an article on the 30 most interesting people under 30. "But before it went to press," Elkies said, "they decided that ‘interesting' wasn't interesting enough, so they made it the 30 most powerful people under 30. They must have been using a rather abstruse definition of the word powerful, though, because the list included mathematicians and lexicographers, along with singers and the vice-president of Microsoft."

Does he enjoy the hyperbole? Not when it's untrue and he has to live up to myths of Schwarzaneggian proportions. Still, he claims his fame is quite limited. "I'm definitely not recognized outside of Harvard and math circles." Then he added with a grin, "but I'm still relatively young."

"What I think is most impressive," Amy C. Offner '01 said, "is that he can sit down at the piano and improvise full fugues in the style of Bach on the spot. I'd always heard that the only person in history who was able to do this was Bach himself." Indeed, Elkies admits he can improvise fugues, "at least on reasonable themes in a slow enough tempo."

One of the reasons he chose to become a mathematician is that it would allow him to continue a serious study of music. "I knew that with math it would be possible to be doing what I'm doing nowadays—researching and earning a living as a mathematician, while still being involved with music on a very high level." On a professional level, in fact. Last month, two of his compositions were performed in Boston, one by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, the other by the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. Some of his work will also be performed next month, and he has performed on several occasions as a concert pianist. He enjoys the music, especially because he doesn't need to rely on it financially; "I'm very serious about music," Elkies said. "But you won't see it on my tax forms."

As with mathematics, Elkies has been involved with music for a long time. "Once again, I have to rely on my parents—they said I was also playing the piano before I was 3." Under the tutelage of his mother, a piano teacher herself, he was scratching out his first compositions around the same time. "The earliest piece that I still play was written in the memory of my grandmother when I was about six years old. I guess that was opus number 1." Now he's up to number 46.

Elkies' other passion is chess, though he was never the national champion. And when asked about his status as a chess master, he remarked that "A master is about halfway between your average chess player and Kasparov. There are thousands of masters in this country alone." But he admits that he apparently has a special talent in posing and solving chess problems—he won the world championship in 1996.

Elkies believes his three main passions have a lot in common. "It's a way of thinking, or even of feeling about math, music and chess that it feels like one is applying a similar kind of aesthetic viewpoint."

But there's also his suspiciously controversial physical prowess. According to several math concentrators and a math professor who wish to remain anonymous for reasons unknown, Elkies is being modest about his phenomenal upper body strength. And Satija, who worked with Elkies on the Lowell House Opera, says he was quite impressed with Elkies' ability to manhandle the sets on breakdown day. "I've definitely seen him do some non-trivial lifting," he said.

While he'll admit to lifting a few times a week, he reiterates "You aren't going to see me as Mr. January."

No, Elkies is not the buffest guy in Cambridge. Perhaps not even in Lowell House. But is he the buffest Harvard professor ever to be published in the American Chess Journal, win the Math Olympiad and write an opera? We'll leave that as an exercise to the reader.