When I Stole Candy
I try not to hurt people, but I’ve not always been successful. Ever snatched candy from a kid and seen their smile disappear?
I had the opportunity to work with a mathematical genius. The work I did for him was very exciting for me although I’m sure it was just a small part of his grand design. One day he called me and my colleague into his office to discuss progress on a module which we’d been struggling with for over two weeks. My colleague and I slaved over a possible solution and put together a comprehensive explanation of the idea. We were eager to impress him.
The good doctor closed the door behind us and motioned to a couple of chairs. I sat and nervously fingered the reams of paper I was holding. He cleared his throat and began.
“Gentlemen, let’s discuss this problem.”
I opened my mouth to speak and got through a couple of paragraphs of our solution. He brightened up. Encouraged, I continued. A few minutes into my explanation he interrupted me. I could see that childlike excitement on his face as he adopted a middle-distance stare, a bemused smile and fiddled absent-mindedly with a pen.
“Wait, wait. I have another build on this problem! This is going to be a fascinating exercise!”
We were all caught in the moment. He looked happy because it was getting him to a seemingly breathtaking solution and we were happy because he was happy. The room appeared to be bathed in extra sunshine.
“Let’s think of this as a tiling problem.” He snatched a piece of paper and began to explain Penrose tiling.
I froze. I remembered picking up a book on tiling by Roger Penrose, reading the preface and putting it back faster than you could say “Turing Machine”. We listened with growing incomprehension as that other-wordly brain of his powered through his explanation. By the time I recovered enough to react he had started a sentence with “And in Level 5….”.
I turned to look at my colleague and noticed he had adopted the “dead fish” expression of comprehension replete with wide eyes and open mouth. No sound escaped his lips. I turned to look at the good doctor who was in paroxysms of ecstasy (and at level 6 by the time I turned to look at him).
Then, the unthinkable happened. The whole situation was so comical and pathetic that I laughed. A single snicker left my mouth.
There was a stunned silence. Fish-face turned to me with his mouth open wider. The eyes were glassy and enormous. Doctor stopped midsentence and peered over his glasses, puzzled at the affront and angry at the interruption.
“What happened?” he enquired quizzically.
How could I tell him? There was no way out, though. I just looked as contrite as I could and mumbled “actually, I don’t understand any of this”.
He frowned and I could almost hear a crash. I don’t know exactly what it was. Maybe his mood, maybe his expectations. He removed his spectacles, rubbed his eyes wearily and said “Ah, well. OK, no matter. I think you guys can continue in the direction you were mentioning. Let’s see where that gets us.”
I knew it wouldn’t get us anywhere. I knew he’d come in the next day and politely deposit a piece of paper on my desk with the solution and that Penrose tiling would’ve led him to it. But there was no time to think about that. Everyone in the room wanted to find a dignified escape route.
My colleague and I chose the door. The Doctor chose a book. The sunshine chose the window.