Mar

4

 Qiji Jim Zhu [bibliography ] has very pronounced, chiseled facial features as is often the case with men of Northern Chinese genetics, features that further seem to augment the aggressive way he assails the blackboard. He is physically fit for a man 20 years his junior as he attacks the chalkboard in his office to his audience of another gifted mathematician and myself, who has no business in their company, only the good sense to know it.

It is an explosion, a seemingly violent yet joyous expression, and with both men, this seems to be the case even though I think it is lost on them. I witness in awe, trying to absorb and understand the math as it is "carved" into the board, trying desperately to keep up.

Zhu attacks the board, aggressively, pausing not even to take a breath, his voice losing the race with the symbols he agressively carves into the blackboard with harsh, audible slashes and bangs. He begins to run out of blackboard space, and without skipping a beat in the slashing and banging of his chalked hand and accompanying voice, begins to erase ahead of where the chalk is going with his bare other hand. The expression visually, audibly, is as aggressive as any entirely serious Chinese gambler visiting Vegas, and he finishes abruptly, throwing his shoulders and head back as his hands come forward as he turns to us now smiling, the rapture of his expression only now evident to us.

Stani Maier-Paape [bibliography ] stands, walks toward the board, chalk in hand, rolling his head about his neck as he approaches, exactly as a very relaxed boxer approaches his opponent at the start of a new round, tapping his gloves as he rolls his head, the way such a boxer might do before coming into range of his opponent. He is in no hurry whatsoever, as though time no longer exists - he is lost in the moment, in his mathematical expression, and I notice his near-accent-less English now returns to a very German-sounding accent, which the man caught up entirely in what he is focused on is seemingly oblivious to.

He stops between each line, each phrasing, turns to his small audience and makes certain they are with him (me, in particular), in stark contrast to his Chinese counterpart, both men recognized from childhood in their respective countries as prodigies of mathematics, their contrast very evident and enigmatic to me.

I had the pleasure of being invited to meet with these two at Western Michigan University late this past week, and it was difficult for me to focus on the mathematics — as it is meeting any great man, where you are lost absorbing their persona, inadvertently, at the expense of trying to understand their expression of their mastery of their field.

As with most things in life, I found myself wondering what I was doing there, and "Hey, I gotta find a way to stay here," overwhelmed by the joy in their work, and how just being in the vicinity of that joy, is a drug in its own right. I felt like I was at "Baseball camp," where those of pedestrian existence get to spend a few days on the field with the big leaguers.


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