The Baltimore Snowstorm

This story is part of a series entitled Leaving Mathematics. See also:
1. The Baltimore Snowstorm; 2. The Italian School; 3. Characteristic Classes

Crows fled the cupola of the university’s old bell tower when it tolled for the last time. That was years ago, and well after the university’s gradual desertion had ground to a final halt. Howling wind blew flurries of snow between the ice-covered power lines, and old books and papers, strewn across the floor, were visible, in one classroom, through loose shutters which banged open and closed in the wind.

“I’ve reached the old castle of bullshit,” Chaim said, through his walkie-talkie, as he approached the university’s gate, squinting towards the campus buildings shrouded in white above. “Who wants to talk philosophy?” The tall rectangular buildings of the surrounding city, also abandoned, appeared frozen and ghostly in the storm. The old university offered a welcome respite.

The beleaguered association of allies maintained a base throughout a few adjacent small garages in the former residential district southeast of the university’s campus. Members with rifles and baseball caps patrolled slowly alongside the complex’s cluster of abandoned rowhouses. They alternated between these useless patrols and other tasks, like filing old papers, or simply lounging among the rows of wooden tables and smoking kaff leaves. Two members played chess nearby.

In another garage, a few people huddled around a desk covered with yellowed papers. One, leaning with her palm flat on the table, held a walkie-talkie to her ear. “Do I really exist?” she asked wryly. She was orchestrating Chaim’s mission. “Good luck out there,” she said.

The group had supported each other even before fighting for food became necessary. Even once its members had learned to generate glucose using only industrial materials, these materials still had to be gathered. Defense was often necessary, too. They had been graduate students at the university together once – mainly scientists and engineers – decades ago, before the riots and the wars began. Nobody talked about that now. Chaim was one of their most effective operatives. He had been a philosopher.

Chaim’s present mission was unusual. Missions typically involved searching for scrap, or breaking up enemy settlements in distant parts of the city. Chaim’s goal was information. Nobody had set foot in the old university for years. Rumors persisted, though, that an arcane physical device – designed by the physics professors long ago, and described in plans buried somewhere in scientific papers within the institution’s empty halls – would end the endless snowstorms, and make agriculture possible once again. Humanity would be as it once was. That was how the story went.

Chaim stepped cautiously through the gates and began to head towards the campus’ interior, stepping over loose cobblestones as he climbed. “Not a chance,” he said into his walkie-talkie. “Save a few kaffs for me when I get back.” His walkie-talkie crackled, and then fell silent again. The snow fell heavily, and the accumulated snowdrifts lay deep around him, making it difficult to walk.

The old quad looked pathetic in its present state. Windows were broken, and bricks fell from the decaying buildings. The clock tower stood mute. “This old place,” Chaim thought to himself with a shiver. He approached a brick building to his left.

Chaim pushed the door, and it swung open weakly, and remained ajar. As he walked in, his hand instinctively touched the rifle slung across his shoulder. The sound of wind could be heard through the broken windows.

The first room Chaim entered contained some sort of old library. Books lay tattered and torn across the floor, and yet many remained in the shelves that still lined one side of the narrow room. A single large window, at the room’s far end, opened onto the quad. Chaim picked up a book. It was so water-damaged that he could barely read its title. “Calculus,” he finally made out. He let it fall to the floor. Further books revealed more exotic titles: “Representation Theory of Finite Groups” and “Fundamentals of Algebraic Topology.” Many were all-but destroyed. “Must have been a math building,” Chaim thought to himself. Nothing here would be useful.

Chaim pressed upstairs. He stumbled into an old classroom in the building’s upper floor. Overturned desks lay scattered around, and a cracked blackboard marked the front of the room. Chaim paused to look out the window. Lost in thought, he contemplated those old math books – and his time spent at that campus long ago. He pushed a desk away with a screech. “Useless now,” he thought. The storm raged on. Cold air blew in, and snow lined the windowsills and the edge of the room. Gifted students, generations ago, had pored over those mathematical texts. Nobody in the world knew their secrets now.

As he turned away from the window, Chaim’s gaze fell upon something strange. What appeared to be a clump of dirty grey hair rested on one of the room’s far desks. He shuddered. Had an animal been killed there? Chaim approached ambivalently. “I’ve seen grosser things,” he thought to himself.

The clump lifted to reveal a head and a ghost-like face. Chaim’s mind surged with appalling fear. He jumped back and raised his rifle. A disheveled man sat at the desk; an orb of grey hair surrounded his head. He stared at Chaim with a trembling lip. Chaim lowered his rifle. They faced each other in silence. The man eventually rose, and, stumbling as he walked, reached Chaim and clutched his upper arm. An expression of quiet wonder overcame the man’s face. “Good God,” he finally said, in a weak, gentle voice.

Chaim stared disbelievingly, screwing up his eyes. He grabbed the man’s shoulders and nearly shook them. “Ascher?!” Chaim shouted. The man stared back at him, and then his gaze fell. “Hi Chaim,” he said.

Decades ago, Ascher Zaritsky had been the most promising young graduate student in the university’s mathematics department. He had delivered lectures, once, to packed rooms in that building’s very halls. “I used to hide upstairs during the military raids,” he told Chaim. “Mathematics was the only thing that made me feel safe,” he said, in a quavering voice.

Zaritsky had never left. He led Chaim to a door, in an adjacent hallway, which he opened, and revealed what looked like a large janitorial closet. Bars of soap lay strewn about the floor in one corner, and a rusty faucet – apparently still operational – dripped water into a nearby drain. An old dirty bed was stuffed in the back of the room. The man closed the door without a word.

When Zaritsky learned that Chaim, and others from their school days, were living nearby, a degree of sadness flashed across his face, and then soon faded. Zaritsky turned around and led Chaim upstairs, to yet another room.

This classroom was large, and intact blackboards lined all four walls. Each one was filled entirely with tiny, indecipherable symbols. “I work here,” Zaritsky said meekly, gesturing to the room. The desks were orderly and a large table resided in the front. It was covered in books and neatly arranged papers.

“I’ve almost solved it…” Zaritsky said, lifting his eyes to Chaim’s. “The Hodge Conjecture, I mean.” He paused, and looked down again. “The only technical obstruction to a complete generalization of Lefschetz’s method is the failure of Jacobi inversion for intermediate Jacobians in higher dimensional varieties…” he said. “I only must prove that the polarized Hodge structures of higher weight arise from geometry in the ‘motivic’ sense,” he concluded. “I can induct on dimension!” He looked at Chaim pleadingly.

Chaim looked around the room, gazing at the blackboards. He looked back at Zaritsky. “What’s the point?” Chaim asked. “What’s the point of anything else…” Zaritsky trailed off.

Chaim and Ascher had held a public debate, many years ago, in the philosophy department’s largest lecture hall, centered on the explanatory capacity of proofs by mathematical induction. Chaim – who argued that these proofs fail to explain – won the debate. Zaritsky was distraught. He had struggled to put words to his ideas. “What philosophers don’t understand is that in mathematics, induction is often more like recursion,” he told the audience in grandiose gestures. “Inductive proofs can be highly constructive…” Zaritsky had nearly broken down on stage. “Mathematical order is the only hope for us!” he had shouted.

“That debate… Is that why you’re still here?” Chaim asked. “Math can help us. Math can help you,” Zaritsky added, his voice shaking. “We might abandon this world, and yet we pass to another…”

Chaim put his arm on the mathematician’s back. They slowly walked out of the room, and towards the end of the hall.

They stood outside, together, facing the lashing snow, and paused for a moment, looking at the gaunt high-rises looming in the distance. Then they began to walk slowly back towards base.

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