POSTED ON 25/08/06

Robert Barrington Leigh

Science journalist Siobhan Roberts of Toronto writes about Robert Barrington Leigh, 20, whose death was reported on Aug. 23.

When asked why he loved mathematics, the tall and gentlemanly Robert Barrington Leigh, a prodigy who ranked among the world's best, answered: "Things are unambiguous. You can see all this beauty, and you can really feel it, because it is provable."

I met Mr. Barrington Leigh at a recreational mathematics conference in Atlanta in March. He was easy to find in the crowd. He was the youngest mathematician present, yet the only mathematician not consumed -- at that moment, anyway -- by some mathematical toy or trick. "I study all day," he said. "I'm in a different mathematical mood."

Faced with the random loss of Robert, a snapshot comes to mind of his concentrated curiosity as he visited the conference exhibit rooms of mathematically-inspired art -- he was diligently nurturing his playful side. "I don't want to be too one-dimensional," he said.

I found him before a stall of polyhedral dice, displayed like candy in jars. Robert was questioning the Mississippi gaming hobbyist Lou Zocchi about his dice, known for their fairness and razor-sharp edges. "How can you test those dice?" he asked.

Looking forward to an illustrious career in pure mathematics, he added that perhaps such math amusements would keep his mind sharp. "Maybe in my field there will be certain standard ways of thinking, certain basic theorems that dictate how one should attack a problem, such that creativity is a little constrained. Recreational math is definitely rich enough to exercise that creativity."

In a note written after the conference, he said: "As I begin to specialize, the number of people with whom I can communicate about my work will decrease. I imagine that recreational math will provide a mathematical liaison with those outside my field, such as my undergraduate friends, as well as many others who aren't even in mathematics."

As the mathematician Henri Poincaré once said, "Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but this flash is everything." In Robert's case, he was blessed with many flashes, white-hot moments of curiosity, insight and discovery, which for a mathematician add up to nothing less than the meaning of life.

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