When I was growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, I thought math was a stale, boring subject.1 I could solve all of the problems and ace all of the exams at school, but what we discussed in class seemed pointless, irrelevant. What really excited me was Quantum Physics. I devoured all the popular books on this subject I could get my hands on. But these books didn’t go far enough in answering deeper questions about the structure of the universe, so I wasn’t fully satisfied.

As luck would have it, I got help from a family friend. I grew up in a small industrial town called Kolomna, population 150 thousand, which was about seventy miles away from Moscow, or just over two hours by train. My parents worked as engineers at a large company, making heavy machinery. One of their friends ...