The Mystery Piano-Player at the Mittag-Leffler Institute

piano-mystery

In a previous post I told you about my Mittag-Leffler 2005 experience, and challenged you, readers, to discover the identity of a mysterious piano player. Coming from Yale, I was jet-lagged, an experience which already worked for me once in 1991 when I visited the
Mittah-Leffler institute and  was exploring subexponential variants of the simplex algorithm. In 2005, I came every day to my office at a very early hour in the morning and started working on quantum fault-tolerance.  And very early in the morning somebody was already at the piano. Who was playing the piano for me in the Mittag-Leffler Institute?

Hearing the piano and realizing who my private pianist was on these early mornings reminded me of a very cheerful song that we used to sing in my wife’s family gatherings. The song was introduced by uncle Shimon, husband of my-mother-in-law’s sister Rachel, and he took the lead role.

Shimon start singing: “And what are we going to eat at this feast?”
and we all joined: “A whale and a wild ox, we are going to eat, a whale and a wild ox!”

Wild ox and whale are not kosher (Update: so I, naively, thought), but comprise of the menu of the righteous people in heaven. This was indeed a very cheerful death-defiant song that went on like this:

“And what are we going to drink at this feast?” and we all replied: “Reserve wine, we will drink, reserve wine we will drink, and a whale and wild ox we will eat at this feast!”

And it continued:

“And who is going to taech us the words of the Torah?
Moses our rabbi! Yes, Moses our rabbi is going to teach us the words of the Torah, reserve wine we will drink, and a whale and wild ox we will eat at this feast.

And who is going to tell us words of wisdom at this feast? King Solomon! Yes King Solomon will tell us words of wisdom; Moses our rabbi is going to teach us the words of the Torah, reserve wine we will drink, and a whale and wild ox we will eat at this feast.

And who is going to dance for us, at this feast?
Deborah the prophet! Yes, Deborah the prophet is going to dance for us! King Solomon will tell us words of wisdom; Moses our rabbi is going to teach us the words of the Torah, reserve wine we will drink, and a whale and wild ox we will eat at this feast!

And who is going to play music for us at this feast? King David is going to play music for us at this feast!  Deborah the prophet is going to dance for us! King Solomon will tell us words of wisdom; Moses our rabbi is going to teach us the words of the Torah, reserve wine we will drink, and a whale and wild ox we will eat at this feast!”

Here it is in Hebrew:

 ומה נאכל בארוחה זו? שור הבר לוויתן! שור הבר לוויתן נאכל בארוחה זו

ומה נשתה הארוחה זו? יין המשומר! יין המשומר נשתה , שור הבר לוויתן נאכל, בארוחה זו

 ומי יאמר לנו דברי תורה בארוחה זו? משה רבנו! משה רבנו יאמר לנו דברי תורה, יין המשומר נשתה , שור הבר לוויתן נאכל, בארוחה זו

ומי יגיד לנו דברי חכמה בארוחה זו? שלמה המלך! שלמה המלך יגיד לנו דברי חכמה, משה רבנו יאמר לנו דברי תורה, יין המשומר נשתה , שור הבר לוויתן נאכל, בארוחה זו

ומי ינגן לנו בארוחה זו? דוד המלך! דוד המלך ינגן לנו, דבורה הנביאה תרקד לנו, שלמה המלך יגיד לנו דברי חכמה, משה רבנו יאמר לנו דברי תורה, יין המשומר נשתה , שור הבר לוויתן נאכל, בארוחה זו

ומי ישמח איתנו בארוחה זו? כל המסובין! כל המסובין ישמחו איתנו, דוד המלך ינגן לנו,  דבורה הנביאה תרקד לנו, שלמה המלך יגיד לנו דברי חכמה, משה רבנו יאמר לנו דברי תורה, יין המשומר נשתה , שור הבר לוויתן נאכל, בארוחה זו

The person who was playing the piano at six o’clock in the morning at the Mittag-Leffler institute was not King David, but rather
… Donald Knuth.

KD

Tim Gowers and Peter Mester earned a glass of beer each for their guesses. Tim’s (unconfirmed Update: confirmed!) guess was Per Enflo. (When my wife saw my attempts to calculate Tim’s algorithm it reminded her of the “beautiful mind” movie, and indeed I would have preferred a hint of the form:  “my guess has no basis.”) I think that Peter won the $50 prize, (Update: confirmed and paid!) although I cannot figure out the numbers 56 and 55  in his answer.

Update: Anders Björner told me that the M-L grand piano is a donation of Bill Fulton and his wife, and also that when Don Knuth came to M-L in 1991 the first thing he did – literally – was to obtain the keys to the nearby church and go there to play the organ.

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7 Responses to The Mystery Piano-Player at the Mittag-Leffler Institute

  1. This beautiful song seems to be more popular in Yiddish: I heard it once performed by students of the Free Jewish University in Moscow in the early eighties; another connection with mathematics ;-)

  2. rabbi joshua Frankel says:

    Dear Serg:
    Who says that Shor Habor and Leviyoson are not Kosher?
    Those of us who read the original in Hebrew will recognize the mistranslation.
    Rabbi Josh

  3. gowers says:

    I happily confirm that my guess was Enflo, and if I had had the ingenuity to think of your hint I would have given it. The basis for my guess, if you’ll forgive me for putting it that way, is that he is a Swedish mathematician and a superlative piano player: I once heard him give a wonderful performance of the late E major Beethoven piano sonata.

    • Gil Kalai says:

      Yes, Enflo is a wonderful professional-level pianist. Actually, when I was a teen-age student I thought that he is the most famous Swedish person (because of his solution to the approximation conjecture…). (To the readers:) One corollary to Enflo’s disproof (disproving a famous conjecture as well) was that there exists a Banach space with no Schauder basis, and this is the basis of my hint.

      • gowers says:

        Just to be very slightly pedantic (in case anybody wonders why the problem is hard) I’ll point out that the Banach space in question has to be separable.

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