Numbers

There’s one at every party. Sitting by himself, eyes closed, nodding along to the music. Or ignoring everything, intent on furious texting. Someone’s brother, or a colleague from work, or a neighbour who was only invited so he wouldn’t complain about the noise.

There was something different about Alfred. He genuinely seemed unaware of the activity around him. He sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by bottles and half-eaten bowls of avocado dip, scribbling in a notebook.

No, not scribbling. For most of the time he sat with his pen poised over the paper, completely motionless. Only once every few minutes would he jot down a note. His eyes never left the Moleskine pad. Even when he reached for his pay for dissertation can of Red Stripe his eyes didn’t follow his hand.

“Hi,” I said. “How do you know Sophie?”

“I live downstairs,” he said, still looking at the pad.

I glanced at the random assortment of words and numbers on his pad. “You’re a scientist? Or a poet, maybe?”

Alfred stopped writing and looked up at me.

“Linguistic mathematician,” he said, turning back to the paper.

“Really. I haven’t met many of those.”

“You haven’t met any,” said Alfred. “It’s a rather new field. There’s only a couple of dozen of us, worldwide. I,” he added, “am one of the first.”

“So,” I pressed, “what’s it all about?”

Albert sighed, sat back, took off his glasses, screwed up his eyes while pinching the bridge of his nose, and looked closely at me for the first time.

“What’s the first number with an A in it?” he asked.

“What?”

“The first number. To contain the letter A.”

I thought for a moment. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Nope. Nothing up to twenty either. Then it’s the same numbers all over again, with twenty, thirty, forty in front. Then one hundred, and it all started again.

“Thousand?” I said.

“Not bad. You’re only out by a factor of ten. How about a hundred? Or, if you want to stretch the point, one hundred and one?”

“Ah.”

“Ah indeed,” he said, taking another swig of beer. “And what’s the first number with a B in it?”

I couldn’t think of one.

“I can’t think of one,” I admitted.

“And that, my new-found friend, is why I’m a linguistic mathematician and you’re not. How about a billion?”

“Oh yes.”

“Oh yes yes yes!” he exclaimed, grinning wildly. “Now then.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice to a whisper, so I had to strain to catch the words. “What’s the first number with a C in it?”

I thought about it. For a long time. But damn, I couldn’t think of one.

“I can’t think of one either.”

“Exactly!” shouted Albert, punching the air. “You can’t think of one! Nobody can think of one! That’s the beauty of it. The number no-one’s discovered yet! It’s the number I spend every waking hour hunting for. Oh, but when I find it… when I finally crack the puzzle… that’s when the world will sit up and take notice of Alfred Mostyn.”

“Who?”

“Me.”

“Ah.”

I thought about what he’d said. I couldn’t see the point.

“Look,” I said, “I may be really dumb, but – what’s the point?”

“What’s the point?” he repeated. “What’s the point of Russell’s Paradox? Of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem? What use,” he exclaimed, “is Fermat’s Last Theorem to anyone?”

“Er….”

“It’s pure mathematics,” he continued. “Mathematics for its own sake. The search for knowledge. The lust for truth.”

“And…” I began, not knowing how to phrase the delicate question. “You, er… you get paid for doing this?”

“I have a modest research grant,” said Alfred. “But when I find the answer, I’ll get tenure. Perhaps a chair named after me.”

“Well,” I said, getting up, “interesting meeting you.”

* * *

I came to see Sophie a couple of weeks later, and passed Albert on the stairs. He was sitting on the top step, keys in his hand, staring blankly at a technical journal.

“Albert?” I said. “You all right?”

“It’s the French. Damn them. Damn them!”

“Why? What have they done? Apart from, you know, the obvious?”

“A team in Lyon have cracked the C problem. And do you know what they’ve come up with? Cinq. Bloody five. They didn’t even have the decency to locate the number in the high thousands. I mean, bloody Cinq. A child could have done it.” He screwed up the paper, dropped it to the floor and started to sob.

“Look, Albert…” I began.

“No, forget it,” he said. “This happens in mathematics. It’s just a bloody shame.”

* * *

A month went by, and as I was passing Albert’s door I heard music. Wagner. Very loud. I knocked, then knocked again more forcefully. Albert flung the door open, beaming.

“Aha!” he shouted. “Come in, come in! Have some tea! A glass of mango cordial!”

“No, I won’t stay. But you seem in better spirits. After the letter C thing.”

“What? Oh, yes, that. That’s all forgotten. Listen: when we met, I asked you for the first number that contained the letter A. What did you reply?”

“Well, I said thousand, but you pointed out that I could have said a hundred.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, shouting over the music, “but those are only the integers. Don’t you see? Only bloody integers! Why – even a Frenchman could work it out with integers. So, I ask you again: what’s the smallest number with an A in it?”

“A hundred,” I said, confidently.

“But what about a half? Or a quarter? Or a thousandth?”

“I see,” I replied. “Small numbers.”

“Exactly!” he yelled. “That’s the real challenge in linguistic mathematics. Forget the quadrillions and the googols. I’m chopping away, paring back the fractions. I’m going to find the smallest number with an A in it – and it’s going to win me a Nobel prize!”

And he danced off into his flat, to the strains of Götterdämmerung.