Any time I use a column to bang on about civilization (according to me) or high culture — opera, ballet, and the like — I get loyal readers e-mailing in with: “Hey, Derb, cut out this stuff, will you? Give us that old-time religion — another piece about killing rats, or a good rant against gun control, the Clintons, Castro, the ChiComs. American civilization isn’t, or anyway isn’t mainly, poofs in beige tights doing arabesques, or fat sopranos going for high Cs. It’s also duelling banjos, daytime TV, Burt Reynolds movies, ladies with big hair, NASCAR, liberty.”
I pretty much agree with that, and am suitably chastened when those e-mails come in. Hey, I like Burt Reynolds movies. (Derb’s favorite line from a Burt Reynolds movie: “Ah’m just as far from Tallahassee as you are, honey.” Name that movie!) Still I have my own little tastes and foibles, and if you want to read my stuff you have to indulge me once in a while.
One of my weaknesses is for math. No, no, please keep reading. See, I’m not actually any good at math, would never have made any kind of a mathematician, and am blankly ignorant of large areas of the subject. (As, to be fair to myself, are many mathematicians. It’s an awfully big subject. The last person who knew it all was probably Gauss, who died in 1855.) I think of my relationship to math as a kind of unrequited love affair: I love math, but math doesn’t love me. I got a bachelor’s degree in the subject from an excellent English university, but it was a class three degree, and there are only three classes. I realized right then that I wasn’t going to make any kind of living out of math, and went off to do other things instead.
Still the old affection lingers. I subscribe to the main math journals, diddle around with a math problem once in a while, make occasional vague attempts to keep up with the field. In a fit of temporary insanity a couple of years ago I sketched out a proposal for a nonfiction book about a famous unsolved math problem. My literary agent, who is a saint, a genius and a hero, somehow sold it to a publisher as mad as myself, and I am now spending my days chuckling over p-adic numbers, L-functions and homeomorphisms (not to be confused, of course, with homomorphisms, which are quite different).
Well, an important milestone in the recent history of that unsolved problem has been the Montgomery-Odlyzko conjecture, which all began with a paper written by Hugh Montgomery in 1973. Poring over this amazing idea, I was seized by the urge to meet Montgomery and Odlyzko and talk to them about it — to find out what made them tick, and why they had got involved in the problem I am writing about, and how they had come up with their tremendous conjecture. I had actually met Andrew Odlyzko once before, when I was doing my proposal, though I wasn’t familiar with the conjecture then. At that time Andrew worked at Bell labs in New Jersey, so I just drove over to see him. He has since moved to the University of Minnesota, however. Hugh Montgomery is at the University of Michigan. I e-mailed them and set up dinner dates for May 4th and 5th. So this weekend I was on the road: Saturday, Minneapolis; Sunday, Ann Arbor.
It was my first experience of flying since 9/11. I was curious to see these wonderful new security features our government has put in place for our protection. Well, I saw them. You’ve heard those stories about old ladies with bags of knitting being pulled out of line for full-body searches? Believe them. The very first person I saw get the full treatment actually was a woman in her sixties. She didn’t have any knitting, but otherwise she pretty much fit the profile. Then, at Minneapolis, I myself was pulled out of line. Yes, folks, Derb got profiled! Memo to Minneapolis airport secutiry: (1) The top flap of that backpack of mine you searched has a zip-up pocket in it. You didn’t notice that. (2) That Twin Cities souvenir mug I was taking home for my little girl, if smashed against some metal part of a plane seat, would produce shards at least as deadly as any box-cutter. Yep, it’s as I suspected: departure-gate security is a silly charade that an idiot could foil.
Otherwise the trip was pure gold. I had no reasonable expectation of any more than an hour or so of time with either of these two scholars. They are both busy men, eminent in their professions, and I am a mere ink-stained wretch. For several years I myself have lived essentially by piece work, paid on delivery. This has put me in the frame of mind that my time is something to be sold in one-hour chunks, and any stranger who wants my time for commercial purposes of his own, is going to have to pay for it. Now here I was asking these two eminent scholars for their time, in exchange for nothing but a restaurant meal. An hour or so was all I could reasonably hope for; I was philosophical about that.
In the event I got six hours with Andrew and better than seven with Hugh. Thirteen hours of tête à tête with pure mathematicians may not strike you as a congenial way to spend the weekend, but I was in hog heaven. These are both very fascinating guys. Andrew, in addition to his work on abstract number theory, is a keen student of the Internet, and has some original and counter-intuitive ideas about how it will develop. He has in fact written a book (currently looking for a publisher) in which he compares the Internet with other connectivity technologies — the telegraph, railroads — to see what can be learned from those previous cases. There are some articles on these and other topics on his web site. With Hugh Montgomery it was all math, but spiced and seasoned with wonderful stories and gossip about great mathematicians of the past, some of whom Hugh knew in his college days. We talked all through our restaurant meal, then went back to his place and talked some more … till 2 a.m. As well as a rich fund of gossip and anecdote, Hugh has a collection of mathematical memorabilia to die for — handwritten letters and comments by people like J.E. Littlewood (1885-1977) and Paul Erdős (1913-1996).
It wasn’t just these two scholars who opened their doors to me, either. An NR reader in St. Paul had made several e-mailed offers to buy me a drink next time I passed through. I let him know I was coming; and instead of buying me a drink, Ray and his wife fed me, entertained me, and put me up for the night! If you are new to NR, you may not know this, so let me tell you: NR is more than a magazine, it’s a family. Our readers are the best of America, which is to say the best of the best. We love them, and they love us right back. To Ray, Charlotte, Stuart, Walter and Lester: Thanks!
So I got a full evening each with two of the most brilliant men I have ever met, collected a mountain of material for my book, took a look at a splendid American university (Andrew gave me a guided tour of the U. Minn. campus) and tasted the kindness of strangers. The only downside was that I didn’t get much time for sleeping, unless you count dozing upright in an airplane seat as sleeping, which I definitely don’t.
And, I’ll confess, a certain overhang of melancholy. Being in the presence of people like Andrew Odlyzko and Hugh Montgomery is fascinating and instructional, but it leaves me feeling bad about my own life. What have I done, what could I ever hope to do, that could compare with their achievements? A schoolmaster of mine used to say that there were only two paths to immortality: to have a mathematical theorem named after you, or to get a poem in the Oxford Book of English Verse. The Montgomery-Odlyzko conjecture will still be studied a thousand years from now, when I am the dust on someone’s bookshelf, and everything I have ever said or done is utterly forgotten.
Punchy from lack of sleep, stiff and irritable from too much time in the air, I drove home along the Northern State Parkway glumly contemplating the total pointlessness of my (to borrow a phrase from the suave, sophisticated language of European diplomacy) “shi—y little” life. I turned in to my own street at last. There was my house, which is too small and needs painting, but which is at least paid for. And there was my wife, who has put up with me for nearly 16 years now, an achievement as impressive in its own way as the Montgomery-Odlyzko conjecture, and guaranteed to get her an E-Z-pass through the pearly gates, if there is any justice in heaven. And here came my kids, clattering home from school, trailing their little clouds of noise, vitality and chaos, running to me for a hug and a kiss, and wanting to know what I’d brought them. Oh, who needs immortality, anyway?