Acclaimed mathematician and Georgia Tech professor Athena Misrahi died July 22 in Atlanta.
Obituaries of that nature didn't include me, Terry Sias, among her close relations. But now that her family has said goodbye, I need to stake my claim. No matter what I was to Athena, she transformed me forever.
Here's one last tribute, so I can put my memories to rest and continue the work she didn't even know she inspired.
3. Three cultures mingled to produce the woman I knew as Athena: Greek, Jewish, and American. Her mother, an English teacher, and father, a mathematician, were children of refugees from Thessaloniki, where the Nazis snapped the roots of thousands of potential family trees.
They wanted their daughter to be wise and brave, and to remember the far-off Mediterranean land of her grandparents. The name Athena, with its pagan origins, set her apart from other children at her Jewish day school, and helped ensure she'd be reading alone during recess.
1. Athena's father, Solomon, spent many nights and weekends in his basement office because of one problem: the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of mathematics. If this conjecture were shown to be true, we would know more than ever about the distribution of prime numbers. But since 1859, it had resisted the efforts of some of the world's best mathematicians.
When Athena learned to multiply and divide, her father explained that prime numbers are special because they can only be divided by themselves and 1. There's no formula for them: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 ... But a confirmed Riemann's Hypothesis would help explain why they seem so random. Prime numbers have lots of uses in Internet security, but Solomon was chasing the beauty of the Hypothesis itself.
4. Athena was in fourth grade when doctors found a tumor in her father's lung. In the hospital waiting room, Athena would stare at the digits pi on the back cover of her textbook: 3.141592653589793238 ... just like with prime numbers, and her father's health, she couldn't calculate what would come next.
1. "Who Knows One" ("Echad Mi Yodea" in Hebrew) was Athena's favorite song at Passover seders. This song reviews the significance of the numbers one through 13 in the Torah — One God, two tablets of the covenant, three patriarchs, four matriarchs, etc.
"My wise child will find more numbers," her father whispered in a hospital bed. "Finish my work for me."
5. Solomon Misrahi left behind five notebooks of what he considered progress on the Riemann Hypothesis. At first, Athena resented him for sticking her with this gibberish.
Math in high school was boring; she hated calculus and didn't see the point of statistics.
But in college, she became fascinated with the manipulation of symbols, and quickly advanced in number theory.
"The whole universe seemed like a code to crack," she told me later.
She genuinely wanted to finish what her father had started. First, though, she'd have to get through academia by doing what many of her own instructors appeared to hate most: teaching.
9. Nine students enrolled in the first course that Athena, then a postdoctoral fellow, ever taught alone: Mathematics for Life. The Georgia Tech administration insisted that this course couldn't count as a requirement for any major. What she had envisioned as a 200-person lecture would be a small seminar. And it would not have a classroom.
That's why, one crisp September day, she dragged a large tablet down Marietta Street to Octane Coffee.
2. When I arrived at Octane, there were two empty chairs in front of a short raven-haired woman scribbling "Mathematics for Life" in sloppy, loopy letters. I chose the one on the left.
"Hi, I'm Terry, I'm in the business school," I said. "I wanted to take an interesting class before I sell my soul to a Fortune 500 company," Really, I went to business school because I wasn't sure what else to do — my primary desire was to live a comfortable life.
"Better you should consider your soul your fortune, and nurture its interests for what life you have," she said. Her eyes seemed to glow, then mellow out to soft brown. "But you're here, so it's a step."
6. The course only lasted six weeks, but I probably learned more in those six weeks than in all of my math education.
"Children do not get ready for mathematics by doing problem sets and taking exams," she said. "It's boring. If you are bored, you should leave."
We all laughed. We wished this class met every day — at least I did.
How exciting Dr. Misrahi made everything seem! The mundane methods I had learned in school — manipulating numbers, solving for variables, calculating volumes — suddenly came alive with stories about the people who came up with these ideas.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
"In response to Oydave's comment, "Look at the two pieces. Is the second a rip-off…
Tons of Atlanta artists use colorful geometric shapes. But to copy the exact colors, the…