At some point earlier in the day — I forget exactly when — Oliver Riordan asked me whether I was going to a reception hosted by the British Council and EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council — an administrative body that decides how quite a bit of Britain’s science budget is spent). I had had an email invitation in the morning and not got round to replying to it, but Oliver said he was going over to an EPSRC stall in the large room where various publishers and other organizations had stalls, and would be happy to tell them I was coming, which they needed to know because it involved taking us to a hotel in the centre of town by bus. I thought, “Well, if Oliver’s going then I may as well go,” which turned out to be a good decision.
Also happening that evening was a performance of A Disappearing Number, a play by Théatre de Complicité, a British theatre company directed by, and co-founded by, Simon McBurney. If that name means nothing to you, you may still remember a seedy British diplomat in the film The Last King of Scotland. He was, or rather played, that diplomat. The play is partly about the Hardy-Ramanujan story, and has had several runs in Britain over the last two or three years, to great acclaim. Despite knowing Simon (about which more later) I had not got round to seeing it, but neither had I got round to getting a ticket for today’s performance while they were still available — which was OK because the play was on in Hyderabad both today and tomorrow.
I hadn’t quite made the connection, but the main point of the reception that I had decided to go to was to celebrate the fact that it had been possible to get Théatre de Complicité over to India to perform the play. This relied on a generous grant from the British Council. I had assumed that, like the Indian dance performance, it was on in the Convention Centre somewhere, but actually it was shown in a proper theatre.
Because of that, the reception was due to start on the late side, and the buses were not due till 8.15. I decided to use the time between the end of Lurie’s talk and the bus writing more of these blog posts, but that didn’t work out because they booted us out of the “Internet Café” at 7.00. That left me an hour to kill, so I found a quiet chair and tried to make progress on the Erdős discrepancy problem. (I haven’t mentioned this very much, but I thought about that problem quite a bit during the Congress, and made what felt like very considerable progress, though now with a bit of hindsight I think it was only modest progress. As soon as I’ve finished these ICM posts I’ll have a long post on that.)
That reminds me of how I spent the time between the talks of Marianna Csornyei and Jacob Lurie. At Spielman’s talk I was given a draft of the interview that I had given about Polymath the previous day after the panel discussion, in case I had any comments or corrections. As it was, I felt the need to do more: they had had a tape recorder on, and their algorithm for writing up the interview seemed to be to extract one sentence in ten from what I said. The result was a long sequence of weird non sequiturs. I offered to rewrite the whole thing, and they accepted. It was good to have a time limit, because it meant I just answered, or rather reanswered, each question with the first thing that came into my head rather than spending ages thinking up little aphorisms and polishing them. I learnt later from Professor Raghunathan, who was at the British Council reception, that the interview was going to fill up the whole of the first page of the ICM Daily News, a four-page publication handed out free each day to delegates, so the effort that I did make was definitely worth it.
During the hour I was sitting about trying to make progress on the Erdős discrepancy problem, I saw that it was raining very heavily. Quite a lot of people were leaving in various buses and I think several of them must have got soaked in the process. I felt a bit silly for having neither of my two umbrellas (the one I brought with me and the one I was given in my kit bag) with me. But I was lucky and the rain stopped by the time I needed to go outdoors. I spent about ten minutes near 8.15 feeling worried that nobody else seemed to be hanging about waiting to go to the reception (in particular, there was no sign of Oliver), but that was just pointless neurosis because they did in the end turn up. It was then that I had my chat with Richard Thomas about Jacob Lurie.
The reception itself started out rather similarly to several receptions/dinners I had already been to. The obligatory bits of chicken started coming round, and I ate a few of them before thinking, in view of the long row of chafing dishes I could see in the middle distance, that I should try to pace myself. The biggest differences between this reception and the conference dinner the previous day were that it was far less crowded — we were all a bit dwarfed by the tent we were in — and that we were offered whisky. I had noticed the whisky earlier when I went to the bar to get a glass of wine. I decided to avoid it because it wasn’t serious single malt or anything like that (it was either Bell’s or Teacher’s — I can’t remember which) and I was still anxious about how little I had been sleeping: these days the main effect alcohol has on me is to make me miserably tired, especially if I am already tired.
After a while, we discovered that we were waiting for the cast and crew and some of the audience of the play, and that they weren’t expected for some time. The first sign that they had arrived, apart from a general filling up of the tent with people, was that … it couldn’t be … was that Saskia Reeves? I don’t know how well known she is outside Britain, but to someone British of my age, which is similar to her age, she counts as a household name. (I’m a little surprised by how short the Wikipedia article about her is.) And then I saw Simon McBurney.
How do I come to know him? There are two reasons. One is that he has a nephew who sang in a choir in which a son of mine also sang. That might not sound like enough of a connection, but it turned out to be, partly because he is fascinated by mathematics and heard that I was a mathematician. The other is that a rather strange event took place in Cambridge just over a year ago. It was supposed to be about bridging gaps between disciplines, and Simon McBurney, Marcus du Sautoy and I were given the task of talking to each other for an hour in a way that would interest an audience of humanities people. (Is there a proper word for that? “Humanists” isn’t quite right.)
We were told about it a long time in advance, and then a game of chicken ensued: who would be the first of the three of us to email the other two in a panic and ask what on earth we were going to do? I lost, and then lost again a few weeks later. But it turned out that I was at a disadvantage. Marcus had been advising Simon about the mathematical content of A Disappearing Number, and the two of them had a pretty good conception of what they wanted to do in Cambridge, which was to take some parts out of the play and perform them.
The day before the performance, after we had consulted each other much more about what we would do, Marcus went down with swine flu, so it was down to two of us. But Simon brought a few of his Complicité friends along, and basically ran the show: I did a few mathematical turns from time to time while he held everything together.
When I saw that he had arrived at the reception, I went up to say hello, and was reminded of the difference between thespians and mathematicians by his manner of greeting: a hug of a kind that I would probably reserve for a long-lost relative who had just saved my life. But it made me feel good rather than horribly embarrassed. (Having said that, let me make it clear that if a mathematician greeted me like that, then I would feel horribly embarrassed.)
A little later there were some speeches about how wonderful it was that A Disappearing Number was finally being shown in India, and we mathematicians were encouraged to mingle with the actors, who would, we were assured, be delighted to meet us after having spent a long time working on a play that centred on mathematics. I thought, “I’ll never forgive myself if, having been given permission — even encouragement — to say hello to Saskia Reeves, I fail to do so.” However, I remained rooted to the spot. But then I had a piece of good fortune. On our way to the reception I had been sitting next to Sedhar Chozam, wife of John Ball, and had learnt that she had been an actress in the past and was just reviving her career. She decided that she wanted to go and talk to the group of actors of whom Saskia Reeves was one, so I tagged along behind.
My opening gambit was in retrospect a bit crass and didn’t seem to be well received. I told Saskia Reeves that although I hadn’t yet seen the play, I had enjoyed her performance in a recent detective series called Luther, which stars the wonderful Idris Elba, who played Stringer Bell in The Wire. (When I watched Luther, my wife and I had recently got to the end of the final series of The Wire and were in mourning.) She replied, “Oh.”
My stock rose a little when Shane Shambhu, one of the actors I had got to know in Cambridge (I remembered him chiefly for a display of Indian rhythms he did with Simon McBurney — the two of them repeated things like “Taka takata” but longer and with different periods that came together only after several cycles, and ended up exactly together with a big “TA!”) arrived and I was able to prove that I wasn’t a completely random jerk but someone who had some connection with the play. And then Simon arrived and said things that I am embarrassed to repeat (unfortunately, even saying that is embarrassing), after which I felt comfortable again. But soon I decided that I should quit while I was ahead, and did. Simon told me that he would murder me if I didn’t go to the play the next day (at which he would unfortunately not be present), which was OK as I was intending to anyway. He also said he’d make sure a good ticket was waiting for me.
Soon after that came the usual hanging about for transport back to the hotel, but this time there were about twenty of us rather than three thousand and I ended up in a taxi rather than a bus.
One small thing I haven’t really mentioned is that pretty well everywhere there was quite a bit of security. To get into the hotel where this reception took place, we had to have our bags put through X-ray machines and be frisked. The same was true of the convention centre. I don’t know whether it’s been like that for a long time or whether the attacks in Mumbai have caused it to be hugely stepped up.
I can no longer remember to what extent I failed to be idiotic on this night. I’m fairly sure that I got back early enough to have something like eight hours of sleep, but that I ended up (after a bit of post writing and mindless TV watching) having more like six.