“K.C.,” I said, “why don’t you do a reading at Cornelia Street?”

    K.C. Cole is the science writer for the Los Angeles Times. She had a new book out about the physics of nothingness called “A Hole in the Universe.” Her publisher was throwing a party for her in New York.

    “I’d love to.”

    We navigated towards a date.

    “Is there anybody you’d like to read with?

    “Why—I’m not good enough?”

    “K.C., I know you’re a star on the West Coast and in scientific circles. But nobody reads the L.A. Times in New York, and we have sixty seats to fill, and frankly, given the variety of stuff we do, and given the fact that what you do is fairly esoteric, we should perhaps hook you up with somebody else, so we can get a house.”

    “Well, how about Roald Hoffmann?”


    “Roald Hoffmann.”

    “Who’s he?”

    “Well, he’s quite a well-known poet. And he’s just had a play produced which he wrote with Carl Djerassi—you know, the chemist, the father of the pill—called Oxygen, which is going to London, and in fact all over the world. But Roald’s chief claim to fame is that he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”

    “Oh,” I said, rather disconsolately. “I’m not sure that he’ll ring too many bells either.”
    “Well, how about me and Roald and Oliver Sacks?”

    “Oliver Sacks, the neurologist?”

    “Yes. Why? Do you know him?”

    “Yes, we actually did a program together years ago. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. He brought a Touretter with him.”

    “Oh, did he really? I’m sorry, he does that sort of thing.”

    What tricks might he have up his sleeve this time? I decided not to think about it.
    “It’s a deal,” I said.

    “O.K., I’ll alert the troops and we’ll come up with a common theme.”

    It was Spring vacation, the kids were out of school, friends of my wife’s had acquired a villa on the Riviera and we were invited, so it fell to Angelo, who was beginning to assume responsibility for much of the spoken word programming, to respond to the press. This is what appeared in the New Yorker, dated April 16, 2001:



The author Oliver Sacks joins Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel-laureate chemist, and K. C. Cole, a science writer whose latest book is “A Hole in the Universe,” for an evening of readings and talks about “the concept of nothing, the void, the Buddhist idea of emptiness, in art, science, physics,” according to the evening’s organizer, Angelo Verga. “It’s a difficult thing to explain,” he says. “It’s such an intriguing idea that I’m just going to get out of their way and give them their space.”


    Needless to say, Angelo’s impromptu response had everything and nothing to do with the eventual subject of the evening. It did however result in an army of crazed aficionados filling Cornelia Street, begging to be let in. Science writing as rock concert. When mystified passersby inquired what the commotion was about, desperate fans would turn to them and howl, “You don’t understand. We’re here for NOTHING.”

    The phone didn’t stop ringing. People started lining up in the afternoon. Part of it was the New Yorker, but part of it was that Sacks had acquired a kind of crossover following. This quiet, thoughtful, humane man, who had spent years toiling in obscurity in a forgotten ward at a remote hospital in the Bronx, dealing both practically and theoretically with some of the most intractable issues of the human brain, now had, by dint of his luminous writing and of the movie version of Awakenings, a ragtag army of what amounted to groupies, who clamored to breathe the same ravishing air he breathed and touch the hem of his bedraggled sweater.

    K.C. arrived early with Hoffmann, and I maneuvered them through the gathering throng outside, past the bar, into the back dining room. Hoffmann was a sweet-faced roly-poly man, with an engaging smile and the trace of a Middle European accent. I pieced together later that he’d spent his childhood on the run from Hitler through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany. His father and much of his family had been killed. He had spent the remaining war years in hiding and the postwar years in a succession of DP camps before coming to America in 1949 with his mother. In the tradition of brilliant immigré children he’d gone through Stuyvesant, Columbia, and Harvard, veering off from an early fling with art history into science and the discoveries which led to a Nobel in Chemistry and many other honors. He was clearly a man of the world, if largely the scholarly world, completely at ease with the incongruity in such generally reserved company of a bolo tie, a leather vest, and a silver ring set with a large American Indian turquoise. “Call me Roald,” he said, beaming.

    K.C. was worried about Oliver making it through the barricades. I went outside and stood in the crowd, among them but not of them, the recipient of sundry harangues and imprecations.

    “Are you the producer?”

    “Well, yes, I guess so, sort of.”

    “Why didn’t you get a bigger venue?”
    “I’m sorry. We do many events. They all happen downstairs in the same space.”

    “I’ve been waiting since three o’clock.”

    “We took all the reservations first.”

    “We had reservations.”

    “We flew in from San Francisco.”

    “I’m sorry.”




    Somewhere around here the waves parted and a diffident man with a gray beard and a younger woman acting as a combination tug and icebreaker made their way towards me.

    “Oliver Sacks?”

    He nodded.

    I put a tentative arm around him and we waded through the last few yards to the front door together, borne on a twin wave of adulation (him) and opprobrium (me). Inside, Kate, his general factota, went downstairs to make sure there was a seat, and I took Sacks into the back room. Embraces. Chatter. Finally, I mustered up the courage:

    “Dr. Sacks, I don’t know whether you remember, but ten years ago I did a program at the Murphy Center, which you were kind enough to participate in. Two plays, one by Pinter and one by Peter Barnes.”

    “Yes, of course, I know the Pinter, and the Barnes piece was rather clever. I wrote him a note.”

    “You brought along Lowell Handler.”

    “Oh, yes, Lowell, he has a book out now. Twitch and Shout. Rather clever title.”

    “I did the Barnes piece—Drummer, about the Touretter. Lowell and I got into a bit of a tussle afterwards about who was better, he or I.”

    “Did you?”

    “Yes, actually it was quite touching, and you were very gracious, moderating and answering questions.”

    “Oh, really, was I?”

    He riffled through his papers. For a man whose province was the mind, he seemed eminently distractible. It was both charming and disconcerting. It was also contagious.

    “Shall we?” Roald said, bringing us back to the business at hand, and indeed it was time.


    We struggled downstairs and forced our way through the multitudes to the front. I introduced the performers with a reading from the New Yorker and a brief synopsis of the story up to this point. K.C. read from her book. Sacks read hesitantly from seemingly inchoate portions of what appeared to be a voluminous autobiography-in-progress. It came out the following year to enormous acclaim as Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. It was dedicated to Roald.

    Roald in fact was the quiet unassuming center of the evening. In a gentle voice, his poems picked at great themes with a small chisel, prying away one layer only to reveal another layer beneath it. No great answers were forthcoming, only an interconnected series of ever more pertinent questions. In contrast to science, he said, “poetry soars, all around the tangible, in deep dark, through a world we reveal and make.”

    Afterwards we had dinner together on the new banquette in the back room. K.C. was immensely pleased with the evening and kissed me. Sacks, who had perhaps been coached by the ubiquitous Kate, called me by my first name and emboldened me to call him Oliver. And at the end of the night Roald asked whether we might be interested in a little series which he could curate where scientists and humanists would address a common theme from their respective sides of the same mountain. It was out of this that Entertaining Science was born.



    Scientists spend their lives in the airy world of numbers. So do shopkeepers, but the numbers are less rarefied. We needed to come to some agreement, which clearly would be idiosyncratic, about such basic matters as the cover, the take, the split, the number of comps and freebies. The cover is what it costs to get in; the take is either the total of paid admissions or the overall total for the event, including food and drink; the split is how much goes to the performer and how much to the house; comps are free admissions, made available to the performer at the discretion of the management; freebies are anything—drinks, dinner, a discount—offered to the performer either as a courtesy or in lieu of any more tangible payment.

    What ensued with Roald was a delicate dance conducted in person, on the telephone, but mostly, since he was at Cornell, and I was in New York, via e-mail. Since his e-mail address included his initials, and since his initials and mine were the same, we engaged in a friendly banter in which we referred to each other variously as R, RH, RH1 and RH2, and eventually, by way of compromise and deference, as RH 1.5.

    What we arrived at was an arrangement which preserved the conviviality of the initial event and which indeed hearkened back to the early spirit of the café when no actual money changed hands and performers were given scrip in the form of a little certificate entitled NSMAFL (Nothing So Mundane As Filthy Lucre). This entitled them to x number of dollars in play money to be spent in celebration and carousing after the event.

    Things are more complex now that we have a downstairs which has to be separately staffed and paid for. The downstairs is our soul, the little engine that drives the machine, the tail that sometimes seems to wag the entire enterprise, a kind of cultural loss leader that is not designed to make money, but that one hopes will at least break even and perhaps spill over into the occasional dinner upstairs and an increased profile in the wider world.

    Some of the people Roald was bringing in were eminent, some were traveling from considerable distances, even abroad, so that what we might be able to pay them—a split of the door—seemed at once charming and preposterous. It struck me that, as in Roald’s model, almost everything could be approached from different sides of the same mountain: science/humanities, guarantee/door gig, charming/preposterous.


Dear Roald,

I propose, in lieu of the pitiful sum that might accrue from what we collect at the door, that we revert to a simpler model from the early history of the café (and the world) where artists sang for their supper . . .


Hi, Robin,

OK, we sing for our supper, but how many non-paying guests can I tell my performers they can bring to dinner . . . My proposal: something like 12 free dinners in toto. So if there are 3 perfs and me (is “perfs” a word in the trade, like “perps” in police jargon?), we can invite two guests each . . .


My dear RH,

What is it with you guys? You all live in ménages à trois?


My dear RH,

No, I just depend on the kindness of women. And café owners.


My dear Roald,

2 per is my preferred number. It’s clean, clear, democratic—and it takes the onus off you. However, after a 17-hour meeting of the ruling junta, I am authorized to make a total of ten dinners available to you . . . and an Artists Survival card for each performer which gives them 20% off their tab upstairs in perpetuity throughout the universe—provided they pay cash.


My dear Robin,

Thanks, ten it will be. I will apportion them. And the Artists Card is a great idea. Could you send me eight for the perfs who have already performed? Now, on complimentary admissions to the performance (as opposed to dinners): what is your policy? I would charge everyone on the list I gave you except the Klein family group of 6, and my one guest, and any guests Lukas has (he hasn’t told me of any yet). Is this too complicated?

A hug,



Dearest Roald,

Do you know the word “chaffer’? It means the same as “haggle.” It just sounds so much more genteel, don’t you think?




Dearest Robin,

No, I didn’t know it—it’s a beautiful word—I will use it in a poem.


    And so it went, back and forth, over several months, with periodic reviews after the series began. What we agreed to was a cover, all of which would go to the house, in exchange for which Roald would be entitled to x number of comps downstairs and y number of dinners upstairs after the show, x and y being variables subject to market fluctuation. And so it was essentially in the beginning and so it continues to be several years and dozens of shows later.


    I am not a scientist, so I was not aware of Roald’s reach or of the distinction of some of his guests. I heard for example the name Mandelbrot whispered furtively or in awe and I was dimly aware that he was a mathematician and had something to do with fractals, whatever they might be. That he was the inventor of fractal geometry and perhaps the most distinguished mathematician on the planet I did not know. I conjured up the image of an intense saturnine gnome-like creature with a protractor and a misbuttoned waistcoat. When I met him he turned out to be large, gregarious, the soul of affability. He too was of Middle European Jewish descent. Older than Roald, he had had the good fortune to follow an uncle to Paris before the war and immerse himself as a Polish schoolboy in the French educational system before, during, and even after Hitler’s conquest of France; he had some brushes with poverty, starvation even, but he survived as a promising student and emerged after the war with a bright future which included an early fellowship in America, with which he developed an on-again-off-again relationship. One of his close friends at Caltech was another Polish Jew whose family had escaped initially to Cuba. The friend had a cousin, Aliette, from a part of the family that survived in Paris, whom Benoit met on his first return to France in the fifties and whom, after some pro forma resistance—she was too young, he was too worldly—he married. And here they were now, Benoit and Aliette, fifty years later, sophisticated, celebrated, open, curious, as comfortable, after early privation and ultimate glory, in the loftiest tower of Academe as in the obscure basement of the Cornelia Street Café.

    If Roald’s luminaries had been stars in my own firmament—Olivier, Brando, Beckett, Bergman—I would have been speechless, paralytic, bumping into the furniture. But since this was an alien universe, I saw them for who they were—all doubtless brilliant, but some garrulous, some withdrawn, some incapable of the most basic social interaction, but all having fun in whatever way they thought of as fun. Some of them straddled both universes, as Roald did—a Swedish brain expert who played complex piano pieces by Chopin and Ligeti and then attempted to map the geography of those portions of the brain which afforded music; a goldsmith whose understanding of metallurgy, particularly gold, allowed him to compose the most astonishing miniatures, too small, too intricate to be viewed except in photographic enlargement; an Englishman who used the principles of magnetism and pressure to create large installations composed entirely of smashed cars. I dubbed them Crossover Scientists. This was in contrast to the Pure Scientists whom I dubbed Nerds At Play. Conversely, the Pure Artists—actors, dancers, musicians—from whom one expected life, liberty, and manifest exuberance, were often intimidated by the august company in which they found themselves and retreated into serious explications of what they thought were the intellectual underpinnings of their art.

    Roald was following in the footsteps of the English scientist and novelist C. P. Snow—“Sir Charles to his friends,” as Michael Flanders so sweetly put it—who more than fifty years ago had written compellingly about “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow’s point was that the world—the Western world, bien entendu—was separating into two camps, that scientists were becoming more specialized and losing the thread which had been one in the Middle Ages, indivisible in the Renaissance, and reconstituted during the Enlightenment, a thread that bound them into a web where science and the humanities were seamlessly entwined. The language of science was becoming abstruse; the world of art was becoming hermetic. Roald was trying in his unassuming way to re-establish a dialogue, and thereby to point out the obvious, that at the cutting edge, scientists and artists were engaged in a similar search. And in the process all kinds of unlikely wires were crossed, all kinds of unexpected sparks were ignited.



    Judy Joice was a legendary figure in the Village. At the age of eighteen, at Columbia, she was picked for a National Science Foundation research fellowship and found herself at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab in the company, amongst others, of James Watson, the brilliant and idiosyncratic biochemist who, together with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, had mapped out the structure of DNA. When Watson came on to her, she abandoned her internship and entered the fertile demimonde of Greenwich Village. She became a waitress at Bradley’s in the East Village, where jazz greats hung out and jammed, and at the age of twenty she married the brilliant and idiosyncratic jazz flutist, Jeremy Steig. In the seventies, after she and Jeremy split up, she fell in love with Wes Joice, the owner of a legendary bar in the West Village called the Lion’s Head, where brilliant and idiosyncratic journalists and politicians drank together and re-invented New York. She married Wes and became the beautiful den mother of the most interesting, volatile, and vituperative collection of drunken writers since Dylan Thomas was carried out of the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in 1953, a block and a half away. In 1997 Wes Joice died, leaving Judy a widow with a fifteen-year-old son. She lost everything—her husband, her business, her apartment. She was adopted by one of the great old men of the New York restaurant business, Joe Baum, the mastermind behind Windows on the World and the Rainbow Room, amongst many other New York landmarks. Luckily for her he put her in charge of the Rainbow Room. On September 11, 2001 Windows on the World, the magnificent restaurant complex on top of the World Trade Center, was obliterated. But by that time Joe Baum too had died, the Rainbow Room on top of Rockefeller Center had been taken over in a restaurant war and gone private, and Judy had found herself out on Shelter Island managing the Ram’s Head Inn and longing for a return to the Village. In January 2001 I mentioned casually to Elizabeth Lyons, who was working for Brooklyn Beer and who would come in from time to time and try to educate me about obscure breweries, that I was looking for a manager. She said, “I may just have the person for you.” And within two weeks Judy Joice had returned to the Village.

    Judy’s sister Lucy had had a more serious flirtation with art and art history than Roald, but she found herself after college illustrating medical texts. One of her authors recognized in her curiosity a true scientific intelligence and suggested she might want to pursue science more seriously. So Lucy Shapiro, née Cohen, the sister of Judy Joice, née Cohen, followed this unexpected path, earned a Ph.D at twenty-three, and became one of the world’s leading molecular biologists. In 2002 she was delivering a lecture at a symposium in Stockholm. When it was over she was approached by George Klein, a tumor biologist and a member of the Nobel committee. “Yours was the only lecture I attended,” he told her. “My wife and I would be honored if you and your husband would come to our house for dinner.” Lucy and her husband accepted and over dinner the conversation turned to mutual friends. One of them was Roald Hoffmann.

    “You know, Roald runs this series in a tiny café in New York City,” Klein said. “I’ve even appeared there myself. Twice. In fact, when I’m in New York, if it’s the first Sunday of the month, I make a point of going down to Greenwich Village to see what’s on and who’s there.”

    “Do you mean the Cornelia Street Café?” Lucy asked.

    “Yes. How do you know?”

    “My sister Judy manages the Cornelia Street Café.”



    Betsy Robinson was a brilliant classmate of my wife’s at Wellesley. She graduated in three years, took a Ph.D at M.I.T, and, after flirting with several careers in the States, married an Italian economist and moved to Milan. In Europe, working on the structure of analgesics, she started a cutting-edge biotech firm with European colleagues and set up headquarters in the new industrial zone outside Nice. As the firm prospered, the principals acquired quite lovely properties on the Riviera; one of them was a villa overlooking the gulf of Antibes where we stayed with the kids just before K.C., Roald, and Oliver made their debut at Cornelia Street. Betsy came to the States regularly, mostly to raise money from banks and large pharmaceutical companies; she always made it a point to hold at least one dinner at the café. She was always disappointed that her visits never coincided with Entertaining Science, but she kept up with it from a distance.

    One day she e-mailed me from Bologna, where her husband now taught, saying that the Italian premiere of Oxygen was going to be given the following Saturday, that both Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann were going to be in attendance, and that they would both be receiving honorary degrees from the University. Could I get her an introduction to Professor Hoffmann? It took me aback a bit because the following night was Science Sunday and Roald was supposed to be presenting a program called Forever Amber at the Cornelia Street Café and he had asked me to perform a portion of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I e-mailed him to ask whether I could facilitate an introduction to a friend while he was in Bologna, and by the way, had he become such a jet-setter now that he could leave Italy on a Sunday in sufficient time to make it to our basement for a 6pm kickoff, particularly since Italy was six hours ahead of us? Roald e-mailed me back that he had more than enough honorary degrees, that Carl would be perfectly capable of handling the limelight by himself, that he would drop Betsy a line, and that of course he would see me at the usual time, not at six, but at five to help set up. Betsy wrote later that he had sent a charming video address in his stead.

    Betsy and Riccardo went to the opening. Oxygen revolves around three 18th century scientists—the Frenchman, Antoine Lavoisier; the Englishman, Joseph Priestley; and the Swede, Carl Wilhelm Scheele—any one of whom might be credited with the discovery of oxygen. It moves back and forth in time between a fictional encounter in Stockholm in 1777 when the three are invited to stake their claim by King Gustav III, and an equally fictional meeting of the Nobel Prize committee in 2001, which is considering which one of the three might be awarded the first "retro" Nobel in honor of the prize’s centennial. Politics, research, passion, luck, ambition—the issues remain constant. However, the play ends, tantalizingly, with the verdict still open.

    Riccardo was so captivated by the issues and so frustrated by the ending that he conducted an elaborate statistical analysis, which takes both the historical and the contemporary protagonists at their fictional word, graphs several potential variables in the voting, brings in feminism, probability theory, and Condorcet’s paradox, and proposes two possible outcomes. Roald found this sufficiently intriguing to engage in an extended transatlantic dialogue.

    And while Dr. Riccardo Rovelli, Professor of European Economic Integration at the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western world, founded in the eleventh century by masters of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, was wrestling at his computer with scientific and sociological questions of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, raised in a play written in English by two foreign scientists and translated for the occasion into Italian, at the same time in a public ceremony in one of the great halls at the same university, one of the play’s co-authors, the Viennese-born American chemist Carl Djerassi, the father of the pill, was being invested with the university’s Sigillum Magnum, and, across the ocean, in the New World, at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, founded in 1977 by three penurious artists, his colleague and co-author, the Polish-born American Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, was scouring the basement with the last of the original owners (me) in search of an extension cord with which to plug in the ancient projector he had lugged down from Cornell, from which a Russian architect was going to project the first pictures of the newly restored Amber Room in the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, which had been plundered by the Nazis during the siege of Leningrad in 1941, shipped to Koenigsberg/Kaliningrad in twenty-seven crates, given up for lost, and recreated over more than twenty years by a joint Russian-German team, using modern laser technology to carve billion-year-old fossilized tree resin into a dazzling replication of what was once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, completing their work just in time to celebrate the 300th anniversary of what had been for two centuries and was now once again, after ten years as Petrograd and almost seventy as Leningrad, the fabled city of St. Petersburg.



Dear Robin,

I’m having lots of fun in Tokyo. Just met the Emperor today (really), told him to come to the café and you’ll give him a free dinner.




My dear RH 1,

I am of course totally outraged that you would offer the Emperor a free dinner. I am thinking au contraire of forming an Emperor’s Club, replete with Emperor’s Noblesse Oblige card, an exact inverse of the Artists Survival Card, with which genuine bona fide Emperors (with drivers license) get to pay a 20% surcharge and pick up the tab for everyone currently dining (with said 20% tacked on), the balance to go to supporting Entertaining Science and assorted songwriters, performance artists, stiltwalkers, and Nobel Laureates.

As always,

RH 1.5

Wine Czar

Minister of Culture

Lord High Everything Else


    The next Entertaining Science had the title: Heavy Metal. It included the guitarist /composer Elliott Sharp playing an early steel guitar, and the return of Oliver Sacks discoursing on various metals. Because Sacks was on the bill, we had had to cut off reservations days before; nevertheless, far more people clamored to get in than we could accommodate. We had somewhat streamlined the entrance procedure by this time. Judy would stand at the head of the stairs collecting $10 from everybody not on Roald’s guest list and issue them a ticket which entitled them to a drink at the downstairs bar. I would shuttle between downstairs—where the staff would be setting up the bar, straightening out the tables, lighting the candles, and checking sound and other technical requirements with Roald and the performers—and upstairs, where the entire front room would be taken over by impatient science groupies jostling for position.

    We are more than sold out when to my horror the Mandelbrots arrive. They are not on Roald’s list nor have they made a reservation. For Judy, after years of dealing with drunken writers, scientists are child’s play. She is just about to send the world’s most eminent mathematician packing, when I manage to interpose myself, collect their cover, pull them through, and find them seats before the masses descend.

    I introduce the evening with the Japanese e-mail exchange, Roald introduces Oliver, and Oliver talks fondly about some of the ritual objects in his family home in north west London where I too grew up—the ornate silver candlesticks for Shabbat, the filigreed Havdalah box, the brass menorah. I am struck again by how many participants in Roald’s series have a journey behind them not dissimilar to mine, how wide the reach, how extraordinary the range of accomplishment, how international in scope, and how, collectively, they represent a quintessentially American ingathering of exiles—Mandelbrot; Roald himself; Oliver; George Klein, the tumor biologist from Sweden; Marcelo Gleiser, the Brazilian astronomer, and a host of others. It was a far more exotic thing to be a Jew in England than it is here and I am touched, as I listen, by the unassuming way in which Oliver alludes to his ancestry. His family were observant Jews and professional people of some distinction. Both his parents were doctors. Now, in honor of the uncle who inspired in him as a boy a passion for chemistry, he passes around a small and very heavy chunk of tungsten, and, as a finale, a fragment of a meteorite which fell in Argentina in 1576. The room is very full, there are fifteen or more of us crowded in at the tiny bar, but mercifully we have survived. Some of those who were turned away are still upstairs hoping to take up seats at intermission if anybody leaves. And indeed, after Oliver, quite a few people do leave and the room becomes manageable.

    Mandelbrot motions me over:
    “Robin, I am having dinner with the Emperor of Japan next week.”

    “What is it with you guys and the Emperor of Japan?”

    “Well, they are giving me a prize and rather a lot of money.”


    “Do you have any messages for the Emperor?”

    “Yes, as a matter of fact I do: Dinner’s off.”

    Elliott’s compositions employ feedback, looping, sampling, layering, and delay pedals, in addition to instruments, in this case a miniature steel guitar. They often follow structures based on the discoveries of mathematicians like Fibonacci and indeed Mandelbrot himself. I tend to find this kind of experimental, computer-generated music dauntingly cerebral. Tonight is no exception. But Elliott, in talking about it, manages to haul some of us retrograde toe-tappers into his boat, at least intermittently. “In the early ‘70’s, I was studying music at Bard and living in a house on the Hudson. I spent a lot of time walking along the river, and we had a porch, and you would see literally thousands and thousands of fireflies.” The online journalist Matt Rand is taking notes. “There were times they would form patterns and almost seem on the verge of spelling out things. That led me to thinking about all the rhythmic structures we were composing, structures that are open-ended. It was all right there, all the fractal shit, pine cones and branches, streams and currents. It inevitably found its way into my thinking and I did a Hudson River series of compositions. They were all instruction sets, or command sets, basically conceptual pieces, it being the ‘70’s, but with a mathematical subtext.” His hope, he says, is that “some people hearing this music will understand, will hear the complexity in it, will wonder how it’s generated, will maybe hear the order, maybe hear the rules. And they’ll go backwards from the sound of the music to the systems that went into it, thinking about birds flocking, thinking about the way RNA molecules combine, thinking about genetic mutation, thinking about African drum choirs, thinking about how nature creates an algorithmic structure.”

    I give up trying to tap my toes and for brief, random, unpredictable stretches, I make a blind leap into the foaming waters of mathematics.

    After Elliott’s performance we retire upstairs to the back room for dinner on the banquette. Roald, the Mandelbrots, Oliver, Elliott, and various spouses and accomplices. Wine is on me. I choose a white and a red and give some little talk about them. Generally quite a healthy amount is consumed. Dinner for y number of guests is also on me (or, perhaps, more accurately, on Roald), which always makes for interesting calculations at the end of the night, particularly given the genteel state of inebriation. One of the waitresses is now so familiar with the formula that I can leave the settlement at the end of the night to her. All drinks are taken off the check, the dinners are totaled and divided by the number of diners; y are comped and the rest Roald is responsible for, by collecting from some at the table and by putting others on his credit card. I pay the tip on the entire bill.

    On this particular night there was music downstairs which at a certain point needed my attention. I was in the office when Alice came down with the check and asked me to tip them out: 18% of the pre-tax total, which she had of course precisely figured out. Roald collected his projector and made his adieus; everybody else had left.
    At midnight, as we are preparing to close, I get a call.

    “Robin, it’s Aliette Mandelbrot. A terrible thing happened.”

    “What? What happened? Is everything alright?”

    “We forgot to pay.”

    “No, no, Roald is entitled to a number of free dinners. I’m sure you were his guests.”

    “But Benoit did not perform tonight.”

    “No, no, that’s perfectly OK.”

    “No, no, Robin, that is not right. I insist. We have to pay.”

    “No, no.”

    “Absolutely. Now, I had the spinach salad, that’s nine dollars. Benoit, what did you have?”

    Benoit in the background: “I had the spinach salad also.”

    “So, that’s two spinach salads. Benoit, nine and nine, how much is that?”

    “That’s . . . eighteen dollars.”

    “Then I had the chicken. That is fifteen dollars. Benoit, nine and nine and fifteen?”

    “Nine and nine is eighteen. Eighteen and fifteen is . . . thirty-three dollars.”

    “Benoit, what did you have?

    “I had the skatefish.”

    “Robin, how much is the skatefish.”

    “Aliette, this is ridiculous.”

    “No, Robin, it is not ridiculous. The skatefish was a special. How much was the special tonight?”


    “Alright, Benoit, now we have it. Nine and nine is eighteen. Eighteen and fifteen is thirty-three. Thirty-three and sixteen for the skatefish—you are expensive, Benoit—how much is that?”

    “Thirty-three and sixteen is . . . forty-nine.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Thirty-three and sixteen is forty-nine. Yes, I am sure.”

    “Now, Robin, there is also tax and a tip.”

    “Please, Aliette, forget it. I have already paid the tip, and the tax is negligible.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Yes, I am sure.”

    “Alright, then I will send you a check for fifty dollars.”

    “Alright, Aliette, I give in.”

    “And it was a lovely night. Thank you.”

    “No, thank you.”

    “Goodnight, Robin.”

    “Goodnight, Aliette.”
    “Benoit says goodnight too.”

    “I say goodnight to him.”

    “Benoit, Robin says goodnight to you.”

    Benoit in the background: “Thank you, Robin.”

    Two days later a check arrived made out to the Cornelia Street Café in the amount of fifty dollars, drawn to the account of Benoit and Aliette Mandelbrot. I blew it up and stuck it on the bulletin board in the office. I smile every time I see it.

    Scientists and shopkeepers: they both spend their lives in the airy world of numbers. Some of the numbers are more rarefied than others. But once in a while, on both sides of the equation, all the numbers come out right.