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Mediums of Vast Extent
A "rare intellectual juggling act"

by Marietta Pritchard '73G

Mathematician and sometime litterateur Richard Ellis. (Photograph by Ben Barnhart, computer graphics by Donna Meisse '86, '96G)

The American math professor has just arrived in Israel with his wife, son, and daughter. He's excited at being there for the first time, but mentally exhausted from completing a big book on probability. He's even a little over the edge, obsessing about small matters, losing his composure when he makes a mistake writing a check in a Jerusalem bank. He imagines a mocking Giant who controls his life, who makes him wash his hands repeatedly, perform other obsessive rituals. While in Israel, he starts up a search for a missing relative, a Holocaust survivor who might be able to tell him about his mother, who is said to have fought and died with the partisans in the forests of Vilna, Lithuania.

     But stop—who is this masked mathematician? Could he possibly be a thinly disguised version of his author, UMass math professor Richard S. Ellis?

     Ellis's unpublished novel, Blessings from the Dead, has as its epigraph a passage from Pascal's Pensées which contains deeply disturbing assertions about the human condition. Part of it reads as follows:

We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro…Nothing stands still for us. This is our natural state and yet the state most contrary to our inclinations. We burn with desire to find a firm footing, an ultimate, lasting base on which to build a tower rising up to infinity, but our whole foundation cracks and the earth opens up into the depth of the abyss.

     Meeting Richard Ellis in person, you'll find nothing to make you think of someone drifting uncertainly, of someone blown to and fro by anything. Rather, he seems utterly confident, never at a loss for words, fully able to articulate any thought, several jumps ahead of any question you might ask. Yet he is also very much at home with extreme complexity, with ambiguity, with the strong possibility that questions—yours or the universe's—might lack easy answers.

     Probability is his game. Ellis is a much honored, world-recognized mathematician in that field. A key theorem bearing his name—the Gärtner-Ellis theorem—has become one of the fundamental research tools used in applied disciplines such as engineering, statistical mechanics, and computer science.

     As for his relation to the novel's central character, David Salem, it's true that Ellis spent a year in Israel after completing a book, and that while there he encountered a previously unknown relative. More important, he established a new relationship to his Jewishness, a connection he had largely drifted away from after leaving his parents' Orthodox home in Dorchester. But here the similarity to his novelistic hero ends, Ellis says. Like many other novelists, he found that as he wrote, his characters took on lives of their own.

     In the world of work, Ellis performs a remarkable and rare intellectual juggling act, straddling what the British writer C.P. Snow called the "two cultures" of science and the humanities. He is an internationally respected "probabilist," with important work on the subject of "large deviations"—rare but possibly cataclysmic events, way out at the edges of probability. He is the author of two books on mathematics, and what writing two books means to a mathematician, says Ellis's colleague Bruce Turkington, is not the same as to people in other fields: "It means that a long, continuous line of argument has been carried out without a single slip anywhere."

     Ellis's first book, the 1985 monograph, Entropy, Large Deviations, and Statistical Mechanics has become "the standard reference" in the discipline, says math department head, Donald St. Mary. The book produced a "major ripple-effect," with much other good work resulting from it says St. Mary: some of that work on large deviations has practical applications in telecommunications, among other fields.

     St. Mary says friends of his at Lucent Technologies take a reverent attitude toward Ellis's work: "To them, Ellis is a mythical figure." Ellis's standing in the mathematical world is exemplified by being one of only thirteen people worldwide named a fellow in the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 1999.

To the non-mathematical outsider, what is almost more remarkable is the fact that Ellis has mastered verbal fields as well as numerical ones. He is the author of several articles on the Hebrew Bible, including one that considers resonances with it in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and he teaches as an adjunct professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies. His earlier education gives a clue to this ability to keep many seemingly disparate balls in the air at once: As an undergraduate at Harvard, he was already pursuing a double major in math and German. He wrote an honor's thesis on the poet Rilke, graduating summa cum laude.

     Ellis is a man of large, comprehensive gestures. "It's all text," he says of the combination of math and literature. "My life isn't writing, it's revising. Such a pleasure doing things in ever-widening circles."

     That pleasure communicated to others is part of what makes him such an effective teacher. Senior Jessica Semeraro, a student in his Wrestling with the Book of Job course, was fascinated to be looking at this troubling part of the Bible in a new way. "I had read Job when I was very young, and came away with the message: 'Be careful; God is a judge,'" she says. Ellis offered her a different set of tools for looking at the text, sometimes providing as many as ten different translations of a single passage. "He's vibrant," she says. "He has so much energy. 'There are lots of questions,' he'll say, 'but no firm answers.'"

     In math courses, by contrast, there are often firm answers, but always more than one way of arriving at them. Ellis aims at teaching his undergraduate math students not how to collect right answers, but how to think. "I want them to see the spiritual side of math," he says. This semester, in a course in differential equations, he has sometimes come to class expecting to demonstrate a theorem one way, and as he talked, discovered a new way of demonstrating it. "I tell them, 'Math is a democratic subject. It's not just 'Because I say so.' From understanding comes freedom, and the students love that.

     "I tell them: 'The goal is to remember—to memorize— nothing.' That gets their attention," he says.

"Do I have two souls?" asks Ellis, pondering his seemingly disconnected fields of interest. "Or has math affected my writing?" Mathematicians, he says, tend to be rather conservative, suspicious of grand claims. Fiction, by contrast, is highly emotional. So listen, for a moment, to a passage in Ellis' novel. The mathematician-narrator is speaking to an Israeli friend:

"At the start of the project there was an exhilaration at discovering connections among areas of mathematics I had not suspected. The beauty of the subject heightened in me an awareness of a Divine Presence.…My deepest sense of satisfaction came from somehow having tapped the consciousness of mathematics, a river flowing through all the seemingly different concepts and making them one. This was the ladder going up. But the ladder had no bottom, and the beauty and coherence of mathematics were not the whole story."

     Part of the rest of the story—Ellis's story—is what happened to the author in Israel: "another large deviation," as he puts it.

     "In the Jewish neighborhood where I grew up, Israel was not talked about," he says. "Nobody traveled. I'd been to New York City once, to Washington once. Then I went to Israel in 1982 and discovered you could be Jewish without being observant. You didn't have to follow a lot of unexplained rules, yet the whole rhythm of life there is connected with the Torah."

     He began studying the Torah, and went back to Israel several times in 1986 and in 1989. Back at UMass, he started working with the Jewish Faculty and Staff Group, began teaching a course at the local synagogue as well as other Torah-related courses. Eventually, in 1998, he was invited to be an adjunct professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies.

     For Ellis, his apparently divergent disciplines overlap, intersect, are mutually illuminating. For instance, "Math is the Judaism of science," he says. "Both are crucial and no one understands them."

     What's next? "Retirement? I don't see it," says Ellis. I love throwing myself into a new topic. In fact, sometimes I think of my whole life as a large deviation."

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