Neil and the Continuous Mathematicians

When Neil heard that Stanford was having a celebration of Joe Keller’s 90th birthday, he signed up to go to it. After all, it was for the Joe Keller, the world’s only two-time winner of the Ig Nobel Prize! The conference was free, but dinner was $30 for students, so I told Neil I’d pay for it on the condition he get a picture of himself with Keller.

To Neil’s dismay, he was by far the youngest person there. Sure, his interests skew older, but here in Silicon Valley, there’s typically a wide range of ages at any nerdy event, from precocious kids to the grey-haired pioneers. He filled me in on how things had gone when I gave him a ride from Stanford, where the talks had taken place, to Ming’s Restaurant, where the celebration banquet was taking place.

According to him, the conference (note this is pre-banquent!) itself had had more food stacked up for snacks and snacking than a Lutheran potluck. And if you’ve ever gone to a Lutheran potluck, you know that’s a lot of food. The only other person he knew at the conference insisted they did not know one another (later he cleared that up.) The speakers were interesting, though one of the women made snarky innuendos, possibly a consequence of being in a male-dominated field.

But the median age, apparently, skewed towards 60, and the next youngest participant was almost certainly twice Neil’s age. And worst of all, they were all continuous mathematicians, and Neil is a discrete mathematician. I had no idea what Neil was telling me. I told him I had paid for dinner, so he’d have to face up to them and try to be sociable. I suggested he smile and introduce himself with something about himself they might relate to like “I work on sliding block puzzle algorithms.” And I promised I’d stick around Palo Alto so he could call me if he wanted a ride home early.

Kelly and I hied off to Books, Inc. which is a great place to spend a few hours. And I looked up what in the world a continuous mathematician is. Oh, no, that kind of mathematician! While my sweet little kid works on artificial intelligence, those bad boys are the kind which have fun figuring out the probable extent of a zombie rampage. My mind was filled with the vision of a group of them dragging my son into the men’s bathroom at Ming’s and giving him swirlies, while saying “Hey, math boy, here’s a fluid dynamics problem for you.”

Given that idea in my head, that dinner went on forever. He still hadn’t called me by the time Books, Inc. closed, so I drove over to Ming’s. I peeked in the window for the banquet room but didn’t see Neil in it. Nervously, Kelly and I went in, and sat down in the waiting area, and read our books. Mathematicians dribbled out, looking well-fed and happy, but no Neil.

He finally appeared, also looking well-fed and happy, (and not be-swirlied at all) but confessed he had not had the courage to ask anyone to take a picture of himself with Keller. I insisted he go back. And so he got this selfie:

According to him, things had gone well. It sounded like he got seated at the “kid’s table” with grad students, and they were all happy to talk about their latest papers. Everyone except him was from Stanford, and had a connection to Keller, as having been his student, a student of one of his students, or the student of a student of one of his students, so the organizers were probably just confused about what to do with the random fan who’d shown up, too. Also, there, according to Neil, there had been an impossible amount of food. Everyone was too stuffed too eat, but then more would appear, and they’d nibble a little more.

There is a consequence of feeding a teenager too much food, and that is that they will grow. Neil fell asleep as soon as we got home and slept in to 12:30, thereby missing so much of the Sunday of the conference that it wasn’t worth going back. But when he woke up I will swear that he was at least an inch taller than he’d been the day before.

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