I’m trying to think up a disclaimer for the following story. It’s just an idea I had, sort of a subtle one that in the end may not satisfy the effort required to read the thing. It asks the question, do we discover Truths, or do Truths manipulate us in order to for them to be realized? Probably not a very exciting idea to form a story around. In any event, frivolous as it may be, here it is, demonstrating once again how brave I am in revealing the trivial thought patterns produced by the poor mental health of my meager and suffering brain.
When I was Professor of Mathematics at the University we had a brilliant young student named Barrett Browning. He was a child prodigy, entered the University at fifteen years of age and was an inspired student, his intellect far beyond his years.
He was a very handsome boy, and as he grew into his teenage years all the coeds at the University were chasing after him. They being older, he was very shy around them, and I think his only real interest at the time was his study of mathematics, and hence he shunned all relationships.
When I became his Professor and tutor he had reached the age of seventeen. For a year he studied under me, and we had many conversations about mathematics. His main interest at that time was the Yang-Mills theory. He attended his classes regularly and studied conscientiously.
In his eighteenth year, one morning he came into my office and told me he had been continuing his efforts on this problem. He said he had worked out a partial solution, but in a sort of oblique way. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but I looked over his work and was pleasantly surprised to find what he had done was something new to the problem. It was a derivative that went in a different direction than all the previous attempts at a solution. I told him what he had done was interesting and that he should continue in the path he was taking. He smiled that smile of his and thanked me, took his paper and left my office.
After that I noticed his occasional absences from my classes and lectures and he hadn’t shown up for the usual Friday afternoon tutorials. I wondered if something had happened to him, whether he was ill or had some problems at home. I enquired of my other students, but they could give me no information, they hadn’t seen him on campus recently, either.
His absences growing more and more frequent, I called his father one day and was told he had not been writing every week as usual. He was a little concerned, and so I said I’d look into the matter.
My duties as Professor distracted me for the next few weeks, until one morning the boy suddenly appeared at my office door. He looked a little unkempt, a little thin, his usual fastidiousness replaced by a carelessness of dress and appearance. He sat before my desk and placed some papers on it, pushing them toward me. “Look at these, if you don’t mind, Professor,” he said, looking up at me with some modestly. I was a little surprised, as modesty had not been one of his strong points at the university. His usual remark to any criticism was a definite, “I know what I’m doing.” In any case, he continued by saying more enthusiastically, “I think I’m on to something here, Professor. I’ve been working on this problem as you said I should, but as you know it’s carried me in a new and unexpected direction.”
I looked over his most recent equations, following their intricate and logical progression. The idea, wherever it was leading, was new to me. I looked at the boy and said, “This is interesting, Barrett, but what does it mean? What are you trying to do here?”
He looked down shyly. “I’m not sure, sir.” He looked up to me again with more enthusiasm. “You can see the logic of it, and it seems to be going somewhere, but I don’t really know where it’s leading me.”
“Well,” I said, “you’re doing something creative in any event. But what about you’re other studies? I haven’t seen you in my classes lately and you don’t show up for your tutorials.”
He looked away for a moment. “I’m sorry about that, Professor, but this thing I’ve been doing is so interesting to me. It’s sort of hard to concentrate on anything else.”
“Yes, it may be of interest to you,” I said, “but still you should be attending your classes. You’re a brilliant student, Barrett, you have a bright future ahead of you, but…”
He interrupted by saying, “I know all that, Professor, but this is important to me. I’ve been thinking of taking some time off from the University for a while to work on this. I can always come back later when I’ve worked it out. It shouldn’t take too long.”
I sat back in my chair. “Oftentimes students become involved in some mathematical challenge that they consider intriguing, Barrett. This is not unusual, but as your Professor I must caution you. This quest you seem to be on may seem important, but in the larger picture your education here at the University should be your main goal. My advice is, leave this aside for a while and return to attending to your lessons. You can always work on your problem evenings and in your spare time. You’re too good a student to abandon your education. Besides, your father has been worried about you. You haven’t written in some time, correct?”
He looked at me and frowned. “I know, I’ll write him soon, I don’t mean to worry him, it’s just I’ve been so busy lately. I’ll try to attend classes more.” He gathered his papers together from my desk. “I probably should follow your advice, sir, but…” He rose from his chair and stood, hesitating. “I don’t know, though, it’s hard to let go of this. I don’t know if you can understand.”
“Well,” I said, “sometimes we become too involved in some peculiar subject for our own good. Maybe you should let it alone for now, you know, gain a little perspective on the situation.” The boy turned and walked to the door. “I’ll see you in class, then?” I asked.
“Alright,” he answered, facing the doorway. “I’ll try.”
During the next few weeks, Barrett, of course, did not show up for classes. I was concerned and a little angry as well, as Barrett had an unusually brilliant mind, and it would be a waste for him to ignore his education.
About a month later, around Christmas time, I received a call from Barrett’s father. He said he had not heard from his son in the last month and was naturally anxious. The head of the department was also asking about the boy. I finally decided to visit Barrett to discover what was happening with the boy.
Barrett had been living on campus because of his young age, but when he reached eighteen he had talked his father into giving money to rent an apartment. I didn’t like the idea, he being so young, but Barrett always did what he wanted and was practiced at getting what he desired. Although usually aloof and remote, he knew how to be charming when he needed to be. Besides his exceptional intelligence, he had this charisma; I suppose you could call it, about him. I remember once he got into some trouble at the University, I don’t remember now what it was about, just some boyish prank I suppose, but he got away with it unscathed. I cornered him one day in a hallway and asked him what had happened. All he said was, “Don’t worry about it, Professor, it’s no big deal. All I have to do is mile and everybody does what I want.”
From his records I obtained his address. It was in an unfamiliar part of town in a rather run down neighborhood. I was surprised at this, as I had thought Barrett lived in respectable digs in one of the apartments usually rented by students. I supposed he had wanted to get away from everyone so as not to be disturbed by the usual undergraduate socializing.
The street he lived on was old and rundown, lined with shabby buildings and empty storefronts. I parked my car, crossed the street and entered his building. I walked up the creaky, dimly-lit stairway to his door. I knocked and waited. I knocked again a little harder. I heard someone moving inside and the door opened. I was a little shocked at Barrett’s appearance in the doorway. His once well-kept hair had grown longer and was uncombed; he looked thinner than when I had seen him last, his eyes slightly red and unfocused. He stood aside absently and I entered his room.
Inside, there was only space for a table and one chair beside an unmade bed. As I looked around the room it was obvious Barrett had given up on housekeeping. On the table were piled many sheets of paper, some falling off onto the floor. He nervously followed me in; he seemed jittery and agitated at my presence.
“Well, Barrett, how are you?” I asked, smiling at him.
“I’m good,” he replied, turning away from me. “I didn’t expect to see you here, Professor.” He then waved an arm around the room. “You’ll have to excuse the condition of the place; I’ve been working pretty hard lately.”
“Yes, I see,” I said, “Working on your problem, I assume?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking at the cluttered table. “I can’t seem to give it up.” He faced me and said in a hopeful way, some enthusiasm returning, “Look, here’s what I have done today.” He handed me a sheet of paper scribbled with equations. I looked it over, but could not make it out.
“See, here,” he said, pointing a finger at his calculations, “these equations are unique, I think.” He looked at me expectantly.
I looked at the paper again. “Without some background, Barrett, I’m not able to follow your notations very well. Just what is it you’re attempting?”
He pulled the lone chair away from the table and sat down. Lowering his head, he said softly, “I’m not sure, Professor.” He looked up, his still boyish face looking tired and pale. “All these equations seem to be leading me to some conclusion, but the solution is not clear just yet.” He turned in his chair, picking up a scrap of paper and looking at it. “It’s hard to explain,” he continued, as if speaking to the page. “I don’t know quite what to make of it. It’s like it’s writing itself somehow, all I’m doing is jotting it down, taking dictation sort of.” He looked up at me, an almost pleading look on his face. “It’s difficult to stop working, there’s always the next idea coming into my mind from somewhere…” He looked back to the piece of paper and stared at it.
“Sounds like an obsession, Barrett,” I said with some concern. “Obsessions are not healthy.”
He turned his eyes to me again. “I know, but I feel convinced this is important somehow. I can’t just give it all up. There’s so much more to be done.” He looked down at the table again, as if his eyes could not help wandering over the clutter of paper lying on it.
I thought for a moment, searching for something to say to the boy that would make an impression. “Perhaps you could organize all this and I could look it over in my office. Maybe give you some advice. Perhaps a little collaboration would be helpful.”
Barrett turned his head and looked toward the one window in his little room. Still staring out of the window, he said in a somewhat distant voice, “Pardon me, Professor, but I don’t think that would help. You see, I’ve gone beyond the problem I started to solve in the beginning.” He shifted in his chair and looked up at me, this time with a strained expression. “At some point here my work has taken off in a completely new direction unrelated to my original aim. It’s turned into some kind of pure mathematics now, distinct to itself.”
“I see,” I said, thinking the boy was overestimating the importance of what he was doing.
He then sat back in his chair and rubbed his once bright eyes. “It’s sort of tiring, working as I have been. All I seem to be able to do is work. I sleep only a few hours at night, and then my dreams bother me.” He looked out across the room and let out a breath. “It seems I can’t really help myself. It’s almost as if I’m compelled somehow.” Then he said in an almost pleading voice, “I must continue with this, Professor, no matter what.”
He looked down at his hands. I looked, too. They were still a child’s hands, smooth and soft, but his fingernails were long and dirty, as if he had not cared for them or washed in some time. I looked at him more closely. His cheeks, once the rosy, fresh and youthful were now pale and drawn, his eyes sunken and dim, yet even so with a faint glow still deep within.
“I’d like to ask you a question, Professor,” he said with a slight annoyance in his tone, noticing my observation and concerned look. “Is there such a thing as discrete yet isolated mathematics? What I mean is, all this I’m doing, or what’s doing me, doesn’t seem to relate to anything. It’s not even about mathematics itself. It isn’t about anything I can think of.”
I sighed. “Well, you don’t know all of mathematics, Barrett,” I replied, a little frustrated with him now. “No one knows all of it. There’s a great deal I am unaware of, and I’ve devoted my life to the subject for thirty years. Oftentimes we think we’ve created something new, only to learn later that what we thought was our own personal discovery had been realized years ago by someone else. It happens quite often. This is one reason it’s helpful to share our ideas with others. Working in isolation often leads to errors of this kind.”
Barrett turned away from me then, his eyes once again surveying his cluttered table. “I think,” he said slowly, “it is somehow up to me alone to do this. It’s as if I alone somehow have been chosen to continue. I don’t understand it and I know its hurting me, but something is compelling me to carry on no matter the cost.” He looked up at me with an expression I had not seen before on anyone’s face, of fatigue mixed with elation and a kind of helpless pleading, and even fear.
At that moment I wanted to take hold of him and forcefully carry him out of his shabby room and his self-destructive obsession, so vulnerable and powerlessness he seemed, defenseless to contend with his own obsessive passion. But I did not, and now I regret my inaction. Whether it would have done the boy good or ill to have done so I do not know.
As I left his room, before closing the door, I looked back. Barrett was slumped over the table, his pencil moving frantically or perhaps compulsively on a scrap of paper, his face, once youthful and exquisite, now contorted into something that was unpleasant, distasteful and even repulsive to me.
On my way back to the University it was obvious the boy needed help, psychiatric help. Later that day I spoke to one of the councilors and he promised to look into the matter. My wife offered to visit Barrett, but I told her it would be better to leave the situation to a professional.
Several days later the councilor told me he had sent a social worker to see Barrett, but Barrett was not at home. She returned several times, but the boy had evidently abandoned his room. I thought perhaps my visit had upset him and that was the reason he had left his apartment.
I decided to visit his apartment once more. When I returned, his door was unlocked. I entered his room and saw that the table was now empty, all his papers gone. I walked around his little room thinking hard. His clothes were still in a closet, his bed unmade as usual, and I had the feeling it had not been slept in for some time.
A few weeks passed. One Saturday I drove around his neighborhood for a while, thinking maybe I’d see him somewhere. I parked my car and walked along the sidewalk in front of his building. I asked several people in the neighborhood if they knew of Barrett or of his whereabouts, but none of them could answer my questions. Then I noticed some young men idling on a nearby corner. I approached them and asked about Barrett. One of them said yes, he knew of him. “We used to see him around sometimes. He wasn’t a bad kid then,” he said, glancing at one of the others standing nearby, “but now he’s just another of the crazies around here.”
His comment alarmed me. I asked him if he knew where he lived now or where I could find him, but he didn’t know. He said probably in some abandoned building or in the park. He said that’s usually where the derelicts, winos and nutcases hung out.
I walked away frightened. I strolled around the neighborhood for several blocks and then through the park hoping Barrett would suddenly appear. My search was in vain. It seemed Barrett wasn’t to be found, or more likely did not wish to be found. The police were called, but their investigation into the matter was unsuccessful as well. I visited his neighborhood several times again, but with no result. My hope of ever finding Barrett diminished with every day that passed.
I must tell you now, about two months later, I read in the local newspaper that the body of a young man had been discovered in the basement of one of those decaying buildings. With a sinking feeling I knew it had to be Barrett. I called his father. He came to our city and identified the emaciated body. The medical examiner’s report determined the cause of death had been suicide. His father took Barrett home for the last time.
The day after his father left I went to that abandoned building where Barrett had died. I stood in its cluttered basement where Barrett had lived his last days. I thought of how it must have been for him there, his frantic struggle to complete his work, and the realization of his own descent into finality as its consequence. Looking through the debris scattered about, I found a tattered cardboard box in a dirty corner containing Barrett’s papers. This at least lightened my heart somewhat.
During the ensuing months I have managed to arrange his work. In studying it, I could see where his unique equations diverged from the problem he had originally been interested in. They followed a logical and coherent order into mathematics of the most inventive kind. The last several pages stumped me, however. Gradually Barrett had begun to introduce his own notation into his equations, leaving no notes of explanation and I could no longer decipher or understand his calculations. His mathematics had evolved beyond my knowledge, or perhaps my intellect to comprehend them. His genius had devised something that could not be understood even by myself, an eminent Professor of Mathematics of a prestigious university.
Later, sitting forlornly in my office, I wondered what it all had meant. What was it that had taken over this boy’s mind, taken his youth and his health from him and at last his very life. What ruthless imperative cosmic truth had compelled him to succumb to it’s will, that it itself could be revealed and it itself be brought to life in exchange for Barrett’s?
What the real cause of the boy’s death no one will ever know, of course. Had he found the solution, its significance too great for him to endure? Had he discovered the final conclusion was beyond even his intellectual capacity to comprehend? Or perhaps, finally he realized in all his effort and pain, he had produced nothing but gibberish, and he could not face his failure. Whatever the meaning of it all, in the end it had killed him.
Think me a fool, but I now consider none but one of these conclusions correct. I think Barrett had discovered something beyond what had yet been intellectually or emotionally conceived, something completely new and original. Some resolution too profound and overwhelming for such a young man to suffer. I think he had finished his quest and solved his problem. I think his exhausted mind had reeled at the conclusion, and that was the cause of his demise. I am now an old man who in his long life has seen many remarkable and perplexing events, but none as singular as this, and so in my own personal opinion I consider this conclusion of mine valid and the most probable.
I have published Barrett’s work, and perhaps some inspired future generation will understand what Barrett was striving to achieve, or did achieve. I hope this will be so, for it would be a heartless cruelty for such a brilliant and beautiful young life to have lived in vain.