Book Review: 'The Professor Of Immortality'

Oct 17, 2019

In 1995 a Harvard-educated mathematics prodigy who went on to study and teach at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, sent an anarchist manifesto to The New York Times and The Washington Post called “Industrial Society and Its Future.” He wrote that if it were not published immediately, he would continue to send bombs to those he perceived as the enemies of nature and humanity. The hunt for him, which had begun years earlier, was the most extensive and expensive in the history of the FBI, but it was only when Ted Kaczynski’s younger brother recognized stylistic mannerisms in the manifesto that the Unabomber, as the media dubbed him, short for University and Airline Bomber, was finally cornered in a cabin in Montana. He’s 77 now and in prison in Colorado, but his story captured the imagination of writer and academic Eileen Pollack. 

A graduate of Yale, where she majored in physics, Pollack saw in the technobomber’s story a timely fictional inquiry into the psychological and societal effects of increasing reliance on technology, and also a way for her to continue to express concern about what she sees, still, as the paucity of women with important careers in science and technology, a subject she’s written and lectured about a lot. As she writes of her heroine, Maxine Sayers, “Most of the young men Maxine mentored acted as if they were embarrassed to admit they had sprung from her professorial womb.”

Pollack’s novel, “The Professor of Immortality,” is a clever, if at times labored, amalgam of these two themes: a third-person narrative about the academic and personal challenges faced by Maxine, an intelligent, well-intentioned 55-year-old single mom who heads an all-male scientific institute dedicated to exploring cultural values as technology prolongs life. The book also suspensefully charts Maxine’s growing suspicions about the identity and whereabouts of the Unabomber. 

After a colleague is badly injured by a mail bomb, Maxine begins to suspect that a brilliant former mathematics student she befriended, Tadeusz or Thaddy Rapaczynski, may be involved. There are similarities between some of his phrases in a published newspaper note, and a Joseph Conrad novel they use to discuss. She recalls that Thaddy was a loner who couldn’t connect with women, and that she had hired him some years ago to look after her son Zach after her beloved husband died and she needed to get on with her teaching and research. She also, uneasily, begins to believe that her son, an environmental engineer who has mysteriously disappeared from his Silicon Valley job and reportedly is living somewhere off the grid, may have had contact with Thaddy. 

As if these two loaded subjects were not enough, Pollack also follows Maxine’s trials as she visits her dying mother in a nursing home, scenes at once tellingly right and acerbically funny. The result is a Big Book, or one that seems longer than it is. I’m not wild about the ironic title, and I don’t get the rolling sentence parts Pollack adopts as chapter heads, but still, “The Professor of Immortality” is an original work of fiction, an engaging domestic drama and a critical questioning of significant and diverse contemporary issues, especially the need for more women to feel welcomed in the mathematical sciences.