Hey little brother,
26 August 2006
When you were born I was 12, and for your first 5 years you had four
and then three parents, rather than two. Well, at least at the time I
thought I was being helpful like a parent.
When you were less than one, you had me (enthralled) and in fits with
your delightful laugh and already-intricate sense of humour. The depth
of this humour seemed to presage the pure delight in clever and
beautiful and fun ideas which characterised your various later passions.
When you were two, the wise look and patient, inquisitive (manner) in
your eyes made me wonder already what kind of intellectual creature and
precocious spirit lay within.
When you were three, you claimed that you never slept. "I don't close
my eyes at night" you said. I asked, "Well, how do you spend those 10
hours, then, Bubble?" (as we used to call you). "I just think about
things in my head" was your response. At times like this, we would be
unsure whether it was true --- it was clear that something special was
going on. I crept into your room at night to check.
When I was in grade 9, a couple of your baby noises were so adorable
that they invaded my public discourse at school and several of my
friends used to make them too.
You continued to be a most riveting youngster, and I remember being so
proud to show you off at high school. Many students at Old Scona, which
you were later to attend yourself, knew you by age 3.
But when you were 5, I left the country for what would be 12 years
living away from my family. My time with you gradually came to consist
of briefer visits a couple of times per year, phone calls from afar,
and carefully-written and loving emails from you.
When I came home from my first term at MIT, you were five years old and
asked me about what I had been learning. I was reading about how
semiconductors worked on a quantum mechanical level. "Uhh, well it's all
a lot of strange words and hard to explain" I protested. "No, Duck,"
you said, with a mischevious twinkle in your eye. "I want to hear all
that funny stuff". You listened most intently, though without many
questions, as I tried to explain probability wave functions and the
solid state. I wondered what you were doing with this information and
was never quite sure how much you might be grasping about a
fundamentally different and non-intuitive way in which the universe
works at the small scale.
Another time though, and only a couple of years later, after we had
been talking about mathematical limits while backpacking with Stephen
and Iris, you wanted to know more and I thought you'd be intrigued by
some differential calculus. This time you often led the conversation
with astute questions, and I remember the humbling and shocking feeling
that you immediately understood what I was teaching better than I did.
Luckily, you shared some of my poor memory and could in time forget
such relatively boring subjects like basic calculus in favour of the
more intriguing topics you pursued with Andy Liu.
Later, I would be amazed how you could remember all those mathematical
tricks and theorems for contests and for school. Math at your level
seemed to involve vast knowledge, in addition to most profound
conceptual understanding. Yet you seemed to excel without spending all
your time on it, in fact without appearing to be entirely focused on
it. You spent a lot of time building hilariously ingenious lego
constructions, and later on doing abstract programming projects and
creating languages (for both people and computers) with Alex Fink and
Though I was then a graduate student, before you reached high school I
couldn't follow what you were doing any more, and soon while I could
explain to you the straightforward physics in my PhD work, the things
you were thinking about sounded to me like so much "funny stuff". Of
course you were always willing to explain a simple version of your work
to me. You always patiently and non-judgementally backed up several
steps when finding that I had forgotten some prerequisite math that I
should remember from university.
In 2003 when I was back in graduate school and home for Christmas you
helped me understand a piece of matrix calculus with a beautiful
spontaneous derivation and simple notation. I still regularly refer
back to that page in my notebook. I occasionally sent you difficult
problems from my game theory courses too, and received delightful
responses. Your solution to one subtle logic problem about a monastery
of monks who all perish at once finished with the comment "Poor monks!".
I know that a big part of you, and a very beautiful and happy part, was
only accessible to those who could speak math properly. I got only a
glimpse of that most spirited part of Robert, though it was always
reflected in your nimble sense of humour and careful manner in all
But I got to enjoy other aspects of your interests and talents and love of life.
When you were young Rosalind and I wanted to make sure that you and
Stephen got out backpacking at least once per year. In the summer after
you had turned 12, we took you on a grand adventure to Glacier National
Park in Montana. We started on an ambitious 6 day route which included
technical snow and rock climbing. Many years later we told you how
terrified for your life Rosalind and I were as we traversed goat trails
on loose angle-of-repose scree above towering cliff faces... or when we
were following morning-fresh bear tracks on an overgrown and out of use
trail on our escape route, two and a half days away from civilisation,
singing at the top of our lungs to announce our presence, or when we
lay awake as our tent felt like it was going to blow away in high wind,
perched on the edge of a cliff, the night before we retreated. You were
unruffled during all this, sometimes lost in abstract Robert thoughts
but always happy to be amid such adventure with your big siblings, and
of course awed by the scenery. The weather and commitment scared us off
the route on the 4th day, but our clever escape route down a valley
turned into the worst bushwhack imaginable. It took us 16 hours to go 4
km. You were amazing, and memorably made a joke to break the anxiety of
the situation. After finally breaking into tears 10 hours into the
ordeal, you exclaimed with a smile, "I thought this was going to be a
holiday, not a hell-iday". I wrote in my diary "Robert's spirit is
nearly unbelievably robust for a 12 year old."
In recent times we had other great trips outdoors. We skied together in
the winter, you visited me in California, climbed a granite crack
beautifully in Yosemite Valley, scrambled a high peak in Tuolumne
Last summer you and I spent a whole week together -- just two brothers,
scrambling up challenging peaks back in the mountains near where we
You, my young brother, had become a man. Your body had become muscular.
When you were younger, while backpacking you would sometimes not even
notice the scenery passing by, but would stay happy if you were kept
occupied with mental math -- do you remember talking about different
numbers of boys and jumpers as you learned to count permutations on our
first multi-night backcountry trip together? Now, as an adult, you
loved the physical challenge, the intellectual exercise of
routefinding, and the self-assessment needed to make choices. You
actively noticed your environment and took a lovely series of photos of
alpine flowers during our week together.
To my mild surprise, you pushed me onward and upward when my ambition
ebbed as much as I pushed you. We were a great team. You had a great
sense of adventure to match your still-wonderful subtle and
sparkly-eyed sense of humour.
And yet, after a week, your mind began wandering back to math (okay,
and maybe you were a bit exhausted) and we happily made for home.
I loved to watch you cross country ski, to follow your graceful and
powerful strides on skate skis. We played together on the trails in
Edmonton and Canmore and in Manning Park.
In the last two years, I taught you to telemark ski, and you and I had a wonderful time on a day tour in B.C. this past winter.
You were distinctive within our family in several ways. You were
particular with your clothing -- maybe because you had to dress up in
suits to receive honours starting at such a young age, and you used to
like your food arranged carefully. You carried the innate gentleness of
your mother and were a model of centredness and perspective for me. In
the face of success and yours and the world's great expectations, you
were always unruffled and modest.
Like others in your family, you have had a nagging activist wish to do
good in the world, even when you have the focused and privileged gift
of a true mathematician.
You have always found extended time for your family, more so than your
older siblings. I would always check with you that it was really your
choice to return home for long periods at each break from school,
rather than staying on with your new life in Toronto, and it always
was. You treasured your family.
I, no longer anything like a parent to you, always thought that I could
still offer the special support of an older sibling. I wanted to offer
some of my wisdom from being a young adult, from early relationships,
from living in the U.S at big schools, from some of my outdoor and
athletic experience. You always accepted what I offered, and clearly
were eager to emulate or share some things, but often I was unsure how
meaningful or relevant the stories and lessons from my life were, and I
was timid to imagine that I might know something useful to such a
serene and balanced young man, whom I only saw occasionally and who had
early on travelled the world extensively for international math events
and forged a broad circle of friends of varying ages.
In retrospect, we each seemed to look up to the other more than we
knew. I now might wish I had been bold enough to probe a little more,
to withhold a little bit less of my advice.
I haven't any organised thoughts yet, and so far I can only share this
small selection of a jumble of memories. I do not know why you left; I
do not yet understand how you were stolen from us. I cannot yet see
what life will be like without you. I hesitated to say anything today,
because nothing yet makes sense. This is still too early for me.
Robert, I have to reassess everything in my life now. I don't know
where that will take me. But Robert, know that I will run for you. I
will climb for you. I will ski for you. I will cherish and nurture my
family for you, and as you did. I will continue to act on concern for
our planet and for peace and justice. But I cannot do math for you, and
the world will never know which of the secrets in the Universe's little
book of theorems you would have revealed to us.
Robert, you will be with me always, as little brother, as mentor, as
friend, and as a great and gentle spirit whose diversity and depth we
can still endeavor to know only by gathering together and sharing what
you have given each of us.