The following is the twenty-eighth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available in paperback, in various ebook formats including Kindle, and as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute provided residencies for about a hundred of the world’s leading mathematicians. In addition, it offered a small number of internships for promising students.
Adam flew in to San Francisco and made his way across the San Francisco Bay to the Berkeley home of Professor Samuel Krimley. He had been Rowan’s classmate in graduate school and, at Rowan’s request, had agreed to put him up.
“So you’ve come to play with the big boys,” were Krimley’s opening words. Adam couldn’t stifle a chuckle. Playing with the “big boys” was exactly what he’d been doing at basketball camp the month before. Krimley must have caught the look on his face because he added, “These are the smartest guys on the planet. What makes you think you’re in their league?”
“Oh, for a moment there, I thought you meant basketball.”
“A silly game for overgrown youngsters,” Krimley declared. His open contempt for athletes drew Adam’s attention to his wheezing as he lowered his overweight body into a leather chair. The entire house reeked of the stale, sweet aroma of pipe smoke.
“I’m here to learn.” Adam knew it was a lame response, but he could think of nothing else to say to the pompous professor.
“My son, you’re going to find out that math is a very rough game. In the academic world, the winners get tenure, perhaps even a chair at one of the top universities. The losers are never heard from again.”
“I’m not at that stage. Mathematically, I’m just a kid shooting hoops in the backyard.”
“Pursuing your metaphor, MSRI is the NBA. I’ll take you up there tomorrow and show you around.” He noticed that Krimley made a point of pronouncing the acronym “misery,” and as he did, a sadistic grin crept across his face.
Adam had brought along Krimley’s textbook on number theory, and on his way out to dinner he stopped by the living room, where he found the professor reading the newspaper.
“I was wondering if you’d sign my copy of your book,” he asked deferentially. “Reading it is one of the reasons I went into math.”
“With pleasure,” Krimley said, beaming. “Not a bad job if I do say so myself. It still brings in enough money to pay for my tobacco.”
He took the book, placed it in his lap, and with a felt pen wrote on the title page: “Prove Goldbach’s conjecture and live forever.” His signature was a hieroglyphic squiggle that covered the bottom third of the page and bore no resemblance to his name.
Every math major knows Goldbach’s conjecture, the deceptively simple, but still unproven, statement that every even number after 2 is the sum of two primes. For example: 4 = 2 + 2; 6 = 3 + 3; 8 = 3 + 5; 10 = 3 + 7; 12 = 5 + 7, and so on. Proposed two-and-a-half centuries ago by the Prussian mathematician Christian Goldbach, its meaning is clear to grade school pupils, but even today, no one knows if it’s true or false.
“It’s a ticket to a lifetime appointment at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies,” Krimley said, peering up at Adam over his glasses.
When he didn’t respond, Krimley continued, “Computer calculations have verified it for many large numbers, but a general proof still eludes us. I’ve spent a good bit of time on it myself.”
“I think I’ll start with something easier,” Adam said.
“That may not be your best strategy,” Krimley countered. “Let me tell you a little story.” He reached for his pipe and spent a good minute packing and lighting it before he spoke again.
“When your father and I were graduate students at Princeton, there was an undergraduate who sat in on some of the advanced courses. He often came to class late and generally kept to himself. One day the professor wrote seven unsolved problems in number theory on the blackboard. When this chap arrived, he duly copied them down, and then we didn’t see him for two weeks. When he finally came back, he looked terrible.
“After class, he went up to the professor and informed him that he was dropping the course because it was over his head. ‘What makes you think so?’ the professor asked. ‘I could only do three of the homework problems,’ he replied.”
“You mean he thought the list of unsolved problems was an assignment?” Adam asked incredulously.
“They checked his proofs and made him a professor that same day,” Krimley said, beaming with satisfaction that Adam had been impressed by his story. Taking a few quick puffs on his pipe, he leaned back in his chair and drove home his point: “Don’t waste your time on trivial problems.”
On his way to dinner, Adam began to suspect that Krimley had embellished the story. On Telegraph Avenue, he bought a slice of pizza at Blondie’s and consumed it as he threaded his way along the sidewalk to Cody’s, a cavernous bookstore known for catering to academic tastes. Evidence of Berkeley’s glory days was everywhere—aging hippies selling jewelry on the sidewalks, stores devoted to pot paraphernalia, a building-sized “summer of love” mural near People’s Park. Since Somalia, Adam had carried his camera in his backpack, and he took it out to shoot the mural. Lining up the shot, he felt like an archeologist photographing a cave painting.
Krimley’s demeanor reminded him of the macho posturing of some of his fellow math majors—not so very different, really, from the bravado of some basketball players. Trash-talk and one-upmanship, whether from athletes or mathematicians, was inescapable.
But basketball and mathematics shared one trait that he valued highly. In both areas, the measure of success was unambiguous. Either the ball went through the hoop or it didn’t; either a proof was valid or it wasn’t. There was no wiggle-room when it came to a basket or to logic. Success was objective, measurable, irrefutable.
At Princeton, he had marveled at the ease with which some of his classmates handled mathematical abstractions. Although he’d done well at math in high school and entered college with almost a year’s worth of advanced placement credit, his exposure to other math majors made him doubt he would be likely to end up among the elite. One thing he hoped to find out at MSRI was whether he was good enough at math to avoid suffering the fate of second-string athletes, who look on from the sidelines and play only in the final minutes of lost causes.
In the bookstore, he found his way to the math section and selected two texts to buy, one on probability theory, the other on elliptic functions. There were seminars under way in both areas at MSRI that he’d promised himself he’d attend, even if he couldn’t follow every argument.
With Krimley’s spare key, he let himself into the house and tiptoed to his room. He propped himself against a pillow, stretched his legs out on the bed, and examined the table of contents of the probability text. Then jet lag overtook him.
He woke a few hours later with his hand between pages two and three, and a stiff neck. Should he resume reading, or just go back to sleep?
Mathematicians divide themselves into two classes: “larks,” who do their best work in the morning, and “owls,” who work at night. He had long recognized himself as a lark, so rather than fight his nature, he crawled between the sheets. Before he drifted off he thought of Élodie, picturing her not in Somalia, but in a Parisian café. There, sitting beside her, an older man came into focus. He was smoking a cigarette. He mentally erased the café scene and replaced it with an image of Élodie in her lavender ao dai under a bougainvillea in Mogadishu.
The next morning, before his host was up, Adam plunged into the probability text. An hour later, Krimley padded into the kitchen in his bathrobe and slippers. Looking over Adam’s shoulder, he snorted, “Kid stuff. They’re way past that where you’re going.”
Adam wondered how anyone was supposed to get to the advanced stuff without first learning the “kid stuff.” Krimley made himself some coffee, and as he left the room said, “I’ll drive you up to MSRI at ten.”
Housed in a modest three-story building, the Mathematical Sciences Research Center sat atop the Berkeley hills, and had a panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay and its bridges. Though most of the space was devoted to offices for visiting mathematicians, it was also home to a lecture hall, several smaller seminar rooms, a lounge, and a library that stocked an assortment of mathematical books and journals.
The tables in the lounge were strewn with math paraphernalia—chess sets, puzzles, games of Go. On a low table ringed with child-sized chairs sat plastic models of tetrahedrons, cubes, octagons, dodecahedrons, and icosahedrons, in various sizes and colors. Adam had noted that many of his fellow math majors had a parent or two in the sciences. As in ballet, the most talented students had usually started very young and enjoyed a lot of parental support. Although he had Rowan’s genes, he hadn’t had the benefit of daily contact with him and other scientists.
On the wall outside the director’s office there was a display of snapshots of the mathematicians in residence. They could have been of delegates to the United Nations—they came from every corner of the earth and, as with the UN, almost all of them were men.
As he walked down the corridor, in addition to English, he heard what he identified as French, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, and Russian issuing from offices. The impression he got was of something like the Tower of Babel tucked inside a cathedral.
After a brief tour, Krimley left Adam with the assistant director, who showed him to the office he was to share with three other students. One of them was a Russian from Moscow University, one a Japanese from Tokyo University, and the last a Texan from the University in Austin.
Adam spent mornings and most afternoons at his desk. Never once did the Russian appear; rumor had it that he spent all his time in the topless bars in San Francisco, scribbling in a notebook. The Texan was an owl who only twice arrived before Adam left for the day. Hiroshi Shinohara, the Japanese student, kept regular hours, and Adam liked him from the start.
Hiroshi was two years older and at least that far ahead of him mathematically. He was short and thin, a polite, unassuming fellow with wire-rimmed glasses. Adam soon discovered that Hiroshi was one of those rare mathematicians who took delight in sharing his mathematical insights, in contrast to the many who held onto them as if they were state secrets. When the two were together in public, the huge disparity in their stature prompted comments that Adam found tiresome but Hiroshi shrugged off with a smile.
Within a week, they were collaborating on a problem proposed in a lecture by a professor from the University of Rome. The Italian mathematician had suggested a line of attack on the problem based on techniques that were covered in the book Adam was reading.
After he made a little progress on a few special cases, he’d realized that a general solution was beyond his reach, so he’d shown the problem to Hiroshi.
Promoting international collaboration was one of the goals of MSRI, and soon Adam was experiencing it first hand. The next three weeks were the happiest and most productive in Adam’s brief mathematical career. Hiroshi and he became inseparable. They worked together in the office they shared, and often took their mathematical conversation with them to lunch and dinner on Telegraph Avenue. After lunch, Adam liked to work out in the gym, and Hiroshi usually tagged along.
On one occasion, Adam was drawn into a game of pick-up basketball with some of the university’s varsity players, and soon found himself in his usual role of playmaker. Later, Hiroshi, who was a keen observer of the game, asked him if he saw himself as a supporting player or a leader?
“In basketball, I’m more a playmaker than a high scorer.”
“And in math?”
“I see myself as a collaborator, a partner. And you?”
“Same. Where are you a leader?”
“I don’t know yet. I don’t feel I have to be a leader, but I don’t expect to be a follower forever.”
“Does money motivate you?”
Adam didn’t want to get into his family’s business. Choosing his words carefully, he said, “I think you and I are alike in that making money is not what drives us.”
“That’s right,” Hiroshi agreed. “I just want enough money to do what we’re doing. Math is my reason for living. Collaborator, partner, or leader is not important to me.” He paused and then asked, “Is math more important to you than basketball?”
“Definitely. I love doing math, especially working like this. Maybe it could be my life.”
By the end of August the two young men had found a general solution to the problem posed by the Italian professor, and Adam suggested they show it to Krimley. They found him at home reading the paper, sucking on a briar pipe. The expression on his face reminded Adam of a baby with a pacifier. After introducing Hiroshi, he asked Krimley if he’d be willing to look at the fruits of their collaboration.
“Why sure. Show me what you’ve got.”
Adam handed him three sheets of paper.
“Professor Veneti had posed the problem in a seminar,” Adam explained. “We’ve been working on it together for several weeks.”
“And you think you’ve got it? Have a seat,” he said, gesturing toward the sofa.
Krimley studied the paper for a good five minutes without saying a word. Several times, Hiroshi and Adam exchanged nervous glances. Finally, Krimley put the pages down on the side table and picked up his pipe, which had gone out. Adam knew the suspense would last until Krimley had lit it again. Finally, Krimley leaned back in his chair.
“I see nothing wrong with your reasoning or your computations. Of course, they’d have to be checked, but at this level one assumes that such mundane details will stand up to scrutiny.”
Adam began to relax. Hiroshi sat at full attention.
“Having said that, I feel I must advise you that problems of this kind are of little interest to real mathematicians. To my mind, what you’ve done is more properly seen as a homework assignment. Devoting a month to something this trivial is, quite frankly, a waste of your time and reviewing it is a waste of mine. I’m afraid Professor Veneti, whoever he is, has done you a disservice.”
“But…” Adam stammered. Krimley cut him off.
“Wait, I’m not finished. You may recall, Adam, that in our first conversation I advised you to tackle significant mathematical problems. This kind of schoolbook exercise is unworthy of a research mathematician. I was solving problems like this in high school. No, boys, I’m sorry. I have no interest in this kind of thing and it won’t impress the king-makers either.”
Adam glanced at Hiroshi, who sat immobile, his face an unreadable mask.
“Well, we had fun doing it,” Adam said defensively, rising to go. “Thanks for your time.”
“Perhaps you’ll heed my advice in the future,” Krimley called after them as they left the room.
Adam led the way out and he and Hiroshi set off together down the hill toward the campus.
“What a snob! I’ve never enjoyed math more than I have these last three weeks,” Adam said.
“Me too,” Hiroshi agreed glumly.
“He can go to hell. I’m sorry I subjected you to that. We should have just sent our results to Professor Veneti.”
“Yes, but we’d better not show our paper to anyone else at MSRI. What if others think like Krimley? It could hurt our reputations.”
“I don’t care. If math is actually what Krimley makes it out to be, it’s not for me.” Adam paused. He realized with a jolt that it wasn’t just Krimley. It wasn’t even just math. At that moment, the entire academic world seemed like a cruel fraud.
Hiroshi was silent. “There were a few profs at Princeton like Krimley,” Adam continued. “You know, the kind that make their lectures hard to follow so you’ll feel stupid and they’ll feel superior.”
“Many professors in Japan are like Krimley,” Hiroshi said. “They have absolute power, they’re gods.”
“Do you think he’ll tell the director? The director reports to my professor in Tokyo about my stay here.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll tell Krimley that I asked you for input and you came to my rescue, that for you the work was a sideline to your main research.”
“Would you?” Hiroshi said with a sigh of relief. “One negative letter could hurt me in Japan.”
Adam went back to Krimley’s place early that evening, packed his things, and left a note on the kitchen table offering a brief explanation of Hiroshi’s contribution and ending with a curt, “Thanks for the room.” Adam knew his hasty departure might be seen as ingratitude and could embarrass Rowan, but he didn’t care. He set off down the hill and checked into a motel for his last few days at MSRI.
On the eve of his departure, he and Hiroshi put their results into an email to Professor Veneti. Though they both understood that theirs was a modest contribution, it was the first original piece of research either of them had completed. Despite Krimley’s dismissive appraisal, they were still hopeful that Veneti might find it interesting, and sure enough, he replied the next day offering to recommend it for publication in a small Italian journal of mathematics.
The night before Adam’s flight to New York, Hiroshi took him to the best Japanese restaurant in San Francisco.
“Perhaps someday, we meet again, do more math,” Hiroshi said over their sushi.
“For sure,” Adam replied. “I’ll be in touch.” Adam treasured his first mathematical collaboration and held Hiroshi in his heart as a brother.