Ellis Blends Creativity, Religion, and Mathematics
by Steven Beeber

This article appeared on page 10 of the Campus Chronicle, University of Massachusetts Amherst, May 16, 1997.



When most people describe their intellectual abilities, they tend to say they’re right brain or left brain, analytical or intuitive, liberal arts-oriented or in love with mathematics and the hard sciences. But to describe Mathematics professor Richard Ellis, all of the above would be appropriate.

That’s because Ellis is something of a modern-day Renaissance man. During the past couple of years Ellis has been involved in a wide array of activities that attest to the range of his talents. In February, he published a new, 500-page, research-level monograph on probability which he co-authored (John Wiley & Sons). Just last year, he completed, and contracted an agent to sell, a novel set in Jerusalem which deals with mathematics, Israel, and the Holocaust. In addition, he continues to co-chair the Jewish Faculty and Staff Group at the University, which works closely with UMass Hillel in addressing issues of Jewish identity and concern. And finally, at his synagogue, the Jewish Community of Amherst, he teaches a course on Torah which explores the literary and narrative potential of the ancient Hebrew text.

“Richard embodies exceedingly well the two dimensions of excellent professorship,” says Donald St. Mary, head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. “He is both an outstanding teacher and a highly distinguished mathematician whose work is known widely throughout the world. And yet, he’s also much more than that – he’s involved in Jewish organizations, has lived in Israel, and now he’s topped even himself by writing a novel. He excels in many different dimensions.”

A Boston native and former Boston Latin School student, Ellis double-majored in mathematics and German literature at Harvard University before graduating summa cum laude in 1969. Later, he continued to write and occasionally publish poetry, even as he pursued a doctorate in mathematics at New York University. He went on to teach mathematics at Northwestern University, then joined the University in 1975.

Now that Ellis has both written a first novel and published a reputation-enhancing monograph in mathematics, it is as if the strands of his life have finally been tied together, he says. His novel is at once an exploration of the psychic ramifications of the Holocaust, an introduction to Israeli culture, and a look at the world of academic mathematics from an insider’s perspective.

“In the novel, which is set in Jerusalem, the uncertainty of the main character over a math book that he has just completed explodes into his far more momentous uncertainty over his mother, who died after escaping from the Nazis,” Ellis says. “It’s not autobiographical, but I drew on some of my own experiences. It was an imaginative exercise that left me free to explore many related ideas.”

Ultimately, it is this desire to explore related ideas which Ellis sees as determining the broad range of his work. As he says, whether it’s mathematics, literature, or Torah, all of his interests have one fundamental basis – they are based on the close reading of texts and the understanding of relationships. They are, like mathematics problems, based on putting pieces together.


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