My dear friend Norm Schryer died unexpectedly this morning. This past week hasn't been a kind one.
Norm was one of those special beings you sometimes hear about and, if you're really lucky, you get to work and play with them. He was a Bell Laboratories mathematician - he'd probably say the old Bell Labs - the Bell Telephone Laboratories. The labs had a tendency to hire a large number of physicists and mathematicians - much larger than any other industrial lab. People were granted enormous freedom, but HR was looking for people who played well together and who might consider AT&T a problem rich environment. Given a few interesting constraints imposed by the government much of the future was invented.
Norm made numerous contributions, but more impressively they covered several fields including those being invented. He brought what appeared to be a near-reckless state of play. Norm had the energy to plow into "short term" problems for weeks or months at a time. Those of us who worked with him saw him as brilliant, generous almost to a fault, loud - very loud, and incredibly playful - think of an 8 year old wound on candy. Norm was like that almost constantly.
We had a very small working group of three with a few other players coming and going. We knew that brainstorming doesn't work (I have a great story about that - if you ever catch me with time ask about SewerNet and SantaDelivery ... perhaps my best three hour stint of working against the forces of corporate bureaucracy). What does work is when you have a small group of people that know each other very well. Diverse talents and interests are central - we had two physicists and a mathematician, but many others came in and out. People would present ideas which would be torn to shreds and new paths tried. On the fly estimates and calculations were central and we each had different approaches.
Norm would sit and listen as others opened up their ideas. Mind you not quietly. If there was something interesting he'd be up on the desk or couch whooping and hollering. (once I had an office next to his.. my number was 664 and the sign read 'neighbor to the beast'). The blackboard would fill with drawings and calculations .. all of us were old hands at this sort of thing. Everyone knew it was the idea under attack and not the person. If I tried this approach in a group I didn't know I'd probably make enemies in short order. We could move quickly. It turns out to be an astonishing fun and productive path to creative collaborative thinking ... I've even helped some companies with it. Friday afternoons were usually reserved for this - Friday from 1pm until 8 or 9 at night when we got too hungry.
Back to Norm .. his function was centrally important. He was the great synthesizer and cheerleader. I've never met anyone with such a powerful knack of synthesizing disparate ideas. He'd listen to a few things and say .. "let me see if I'm understanding this properly.." and then he'd launch into a beautiful description that was often much more interesting that what you had presented. He'd find inspiration for bringing in ideas from all over - 13th century Italy, a Norden bombsight and skip bombing from WWII, pure math, art, ... I began to see the value of bringing in ideas and people from far outside your field and to offer your services to others because they might be curious.
He helped me learn how to harness the power and joy of simple play.
This has stayed with me and helps define how I see the world. He probably had no idea he was a powerful mentor.
In two weeks time we would meet for a "ducking" to celebrate his birthday at the Peking Duck House in Chinatown. Norm would have been 75. The world seems too quiet, too sterile, too joyless tonight. I only have a few very close friends and that group is now smaller by one. One of the others suggested I howl at the moon inf frustration. I may do just that ...
No recipe corner other than noting Norm didn't exactly have a healthy diet. Vegetables were "what meat eats..." Shrimp was a matrix for holding melted butter. In politics and food we were polar opposites. That didn't get in the way of a long friendship. So if you want to eat one last unhealthy thing this holiday season, Norm would probably applaud.
Instead this is the shard that managed to get us interested in each other's mind. Bail now if you don't like math. I'll just note it is semi-geekish.
I had only been with the Labs for two years when we first met. I heard he had a great PDE solver and I wanted to do some numerically solve Maxwell's equations in the near field (if that seems foreign don't worry. .. it's just trying to understand the behavior of light very close to the end of a hole much smaller than the light's wavelength. It's messy and people usually ignore it as unimportant). We were having such a fine time that one of us brought up Khinchin's Constant. It surprised me he knew it's history (it was a fairly recent result) and apparently it surprised him that I knew about it in the first place as I wasn't a mathematician. It's so sweet it needs to be mentioned.
If you take the geometric mean of the partial quotients of the simple continued fraction of a simple real number, the limit as n → ∞ the result is independent of the number (except for the set of measure 0) and is about 2.685452... It isn't known if it is irrational, let alone transcendental. It's enough to invoke wonder and wonder and that was enough to start a long friendship.
(here it is more formally - you can't do this easily in html, so I'll use something else and paste an image)