The New Hire

This essay was submitted as part of my application to an internship program with Farrar Strauss & Giroux.

Hongxi arrived at the beginning of my second year, as the checked luggage of a sparkling new hire, Professor Davitt of Arizona. “I passed the algebra qual back at UA, so I don’t have to take it here,” Hongxi informed us, a circle of current students, leaning against the office bookshelf or perched atop desks.

Hongxi emitted a smirk, revealing an array of problematic teeth. The whole apparatus appeared to cave in, a bit to the right of center, centering upon one barely-visible brownish-grey stub. This attempt at a smile appeared inappropriately often, as if the result of a compulsion. Having been all-but traumatized by the difficulty of Hopkins’ written qualifying exams, which I’d just passed that spring, I wasn’t inclined to participate in his mirth. An ornate skin tag protruded from one side of the new arrival’s neck.

I now think of Felix Krull’s irreverent words: “Isn’t it instead culpable to be ugly? I have always ascribed it to a kind of carelessness.” Hongxi was fairly big, taller than me, and horribly mannered. His head seemed to jut forward uncontrollably as he spoke, extending further with every syllable, and he gesticulated excessively.

At the time, I was interested in working with Professor Davitt. The competition between two students of the same year under one professor has been well characterized: upon graduating, they must compete for the professor’s recommendation to academic jobs. Hongxi must have taken this threat to heart. Another new student, Shengpei—admitted traditionally (as a first-year), unlike Hongxi—soon told me that Hongxi was spreading rumors among his gang (Zhaoning and Linzhong) that Davitt wasn’t impressed with my abilities. Continue reading

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Characteristic Classes

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

Rainer noticed the pattern halfway through July. He had constructed smooth surfaces in a certain four-dimensional smooth algebraic variety, using the Chern classes of vector bundles. He noticed that he could anticipate these surfaces’ Hodge numbers. “This seems to amount virtually to something like a non-existence result,” he wrote, later that day, in an email to a junior faculty member at another school.

Rainer soon sank into a deep depression. “I go full days without saying a single word,” he told Diego, over the phone. Continue reading

The Italian School

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

“Of course you should go!” Professor Torino nodded honestly, smiling inexplicably. Torino hung like that for an instant, balanced in his chair. He relaxed suddenly, his smile vanishing. “Pieri is a good mathematician,” he continued. “We spent a summer together at the Institute in 1991.”

Professor Torino always seemed to like Josif, though Josif didn’t fully understand why. Continue reading

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?” Continue reading

The Golden Hour

This short story was written for SS&P’s The Future: Powered by Fiction competition.

Oliver adjusted his heavy earmuffs against the screech and grind of machinery as he stepped onto the factory floor. The massive complex was dimly lit. Past towering smokestacks and silos lay a single row of grimy glass windows; through those windows was barely visible the yellow-white Mars sky.

Continue reading