HUMBLE BOY

I'd read that Humble Boy, a new play by Charlotte Jones that had transferred from the National Theatre to the Gielgud, was about an astrophysicist. So I went to the theatre expecting something along the lines of Tom Stoppard's Hapgood or Arcadia, in which mathematics and theoretical physics are part of the story.

For a while, that was what I still thought I was going to see. In the programme, I found passages about string theory taken from Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. The play itself begins with a scene in which Felix Humble, a research fellow in astrophysics played by Simon Russell Beale, refuses to deal with important matters until he has found a set of suitable names for collections of things (like beekeepers), and I expected more to be made of this compulsive streak.

After that, however, Humble Boy became an entertaining but not very special West End play about relationships within and between families. String theory does get a mention, but it seems grafted on, not an integral part of the play at all. The same is true of another character's long account of his father's experiences in the RAF, incidentally, so it's not just that I was expecting too much of the mathematics.

For me, the best thing about the play was Simon Russell Beale's performance. He brought Felix Humble to life, even if I didn't find the character convincing as a mathematician. Though it was disconcerting to realise how much his choice of ill-fitting and inappropriate clothes reminded me of one or two real mathematicians I have met. Felicity Kendall was eminently watchable, as she always is.

Humble Boy is not a very deep play and it is not about mathematics. In a way, that's the most encouraging thing about it. It's nice to know that mathematicians and physicists are now included in the range of characters that authors feel they can draw on, and that string theory is considered something that can be mentioned to an ordinary audience without turning the play into a lecture. That must be better than being confined to a sort of intellectual ghetto, even one that contains such excellent plays as Breaking the Code and Copenhagen. Of course, if the mathematician was going to be a stereotype we'd all have preferred a more flattering one, but I doubt that any profession is satisfied with the way it's portrayed on the stage. We mustn't take ourselves too seriously.

Peter Saunders

King's College, London

 

FRÖHLICHER NACHKLANG

Spontaneous applause greeted the proposal by the organisers, Jürgen Ritter and myself, that the February Oberwolfach meeting on Orders in arithmetic and geometry should be dedicated to the memory of Ali Fröhlich. Oberwolfach was always very special to Ali. He had attended numerous meetings there over the past forty years, and he was extremely fond of both the institute and the locality. It was therefore both very appropriate and also our great pleasure that his wife Ruth and daughter Sorrel were able to come and join us for the meeting.

Ali, who sadly passed away in November last year, was not only a singularly original and creative mathematician, famous for his spectacular breakthrough in the Galois structure of rings of integers, but he was also remarkable research leader who built up a major international research community in the theory of Galois modules. The great majority of the participants of the meeting had benefited substantially from his advice and encouragement. It was immensely impressive to see how this subject area, which he cared for so much, has developed and diversified in recent years - so that it now embraces inter alia aspects of Galois actions in arithmetic geometry, Iwasawa theory and Starkís conjectures. The meeting therefore proved to be a wonderful tribute to both Aliís work and his scientific leadership.

On the Wednesday evening Leon McCulloh led an Ali Abend in the Music Room of the Institute, where, in an informal manner, we recalled various stories and incidents from his life. This provided us all with an opportunity to share our memories of Ali. Many recalled his encouragement and his generosity with ideas, and his remarkable gift of inspiring a sense of self-belief in young researchers. In addition to being a very distinguished mathematician, he was also a remarkable person who had led a remarkable life. A number of people mentioned his integrity, and others recounted stories from his war years in Palestine and his early years in the UK. A particularly striking theme was his deep love of German life and culture Ė this despite his family having suffered so much at the hands of Hitlerís Third Reich. His love of things German manifested itself in many ways: from his contacts, exchanges and support for German mathematics to his appreciation for German coffee houses and especially German Kuchen. His favourite coffee house was in Schiltach, where his limitless capacity for eating Kuchen and his mop of wild, white hair are still fondly remembered by one of the employees. Ruth and Sorrel delighted us with a number of tales from the home front, where the endearing eccentricities of the "absent minded professor" kept his family constantly amused. On one occasion, for instance, he went to work in his slippers, returning home in the rain with soaking wet feet. Ali enjoyed a joke as much as anybody; he never took himself too seriously, and indeed, detested any kind of pomposity or self-importance in others. Altogether this was a moving and thoroughly memorable evening, and it was especially touching to note how a number of participants from the parallel meeting on Arithmetic of fields chose to attend.

When the meeting closed on Friday evening, many of those present then packed their cases to make their way to Cambridge, for the Celebration of Aliís life which took place on the following Sunday in Robinson College.

Martin Taylor

 


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