WAITING FOR A SHIP

WAITING FOR A SHIP


"Has your ship come in?" A friend of mine used to ask me this question when he saw me in the mathematics building. This was while I was working hard on my thesis and his question seemed to be half greeting and half inquiry as to whether I had succeeded; whether I had found the key idea of the problem. Seeing me walking around the department with unfocused eyes and pale complexion, he might have known what my answer would be even before he asked me the question!

This friend knew that I had recently started my mathematical adventures at graduate school. I had loaded my ship with a large cargo of hard work and sent it out into the vast ocean of uncertainty toward the island of the truth, hoping for its successful return.

One day, to my surprise, it looked as if my ship was coming back. I drove hurriedly for an hour to the nearby university where my thesis advisor was visiting. He listened quietly to my explanation of my new idea for thirty minutes. After I had finished, he started to speak to me slowly. "I do not want to discourage you, but two mathematicians called me last week saying that they had solved the problem with a better idea."

Then, I had to send another ship out to sea. My advisor kept moving from place to place, and my family and I were busy packing our bags and following him. Even during this time of frequent moves, I spent most of the time searching for my ship, wondering from where it would come.

It was in the place where the Vikings had lived long ago that my long- awaited ship came slowly sailing toward me. At the time I was visiting that faraway place with my advisor, his students, and their families. This was the institute in a suburb of Stockholm where for almost 100 years many mathematicians had come to visit and try to solve their problems. My ship was approaching me little by little while, together with my colleagues, I was studying and discussing in the antique office and library, drinking wine and coffee in the yellow villa, cooking and eating in the kitchen, and walking around near the institute.

Like everyone else, I have read many essays which express regret about the brevity of life. Among these, I can still remember one in particular. It said that even if you saw and met a large number of people in your life, those with whom you had true friendship would be only a few among them. I also would like to comment on the shortness of our life in my own way. Why is a mathematician's life short? It is because a mathematician knows a large number of theorems from books and papers, but his own theorems are only a few.

After the ship of my thesis came in, I continued waiting for other ships. Overall, one ship has come in and been unloaded in my office every year. There have been a great many times when I fretted that I had seen no trace of a ship for a long time. There were as many times when a ship drew near at first but then disappeared over the horizon, leaving me dejected. There were even times when the ship, coming toward me, got caught in a stormy wind and was wrecked near my port.

However, with the passage of time, my walk to the little port as I wait for a ship of deep theorems has become more lighthearted. Whether a ship comes in or not, and whether the ship coming in is large or small, all I have to do every day is to enlarge my little port, to gaze at the horizon calmly, and to lead my seaward life pleasantly, dreaming of beautiful ships of truth.