Resting in Peace

There is something romantic about old cemeteries. Whether it is the sobering symbolism of socialism in action, or the visual stimulus of ancient crypts, the thought that the hallowed ground inters the bones of generations long gone sends a primitive shiver through the body, reminding one of the mortality and equality of Man.

It is particularly humbling to be at the grave site of a personal hero, and be re-inspired by the work and contribution that have lived on long after the creator is gone. In that light, I have always wanted to visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (resting place of Chopin, Bizet, Marcel Marceau, J R D Tata and Oscar Wilde), Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence (resting place of Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo) and London's Westminster Abbey (home to Newton, Darwin, Dickens and Lord Tennyson among many other literary greats).

One of my favourite burial grounds is the Princeton Cemetery. Small and intimate like the town, this eighteenth century cemetery has been described as the "Westminster Abbey of the United States", and has its share of scientists and mathematicians, thanks largely in part to the drawing power of the nearby Institute of Advanced Study (IAS).

Although there are no literary stalwarts resting at Princeton, it is home to Sylvia Beech, the founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and lending library in Paris, who took the risk of publishing James Joyce's Ulysses when no other publisher dared approach the controversial manuscript. While the English speaking world owes her a debt of gratitude for this courageous decision, the book proved to be her bête noire as it put her in a debt from which she never recovered, especially when Joyce took the book to Bodley Head after its striking success, thereby stranding Beech financially and cutting her off from the book's royalties.

The unassuming tombstone of John von Neumann is my biggest draw at the Princeton cemetery. Within a stone's throw away from Kurt Gödel, the grave is difficult to locate even with a map, and is almost unworthy of the role played by von Neumann in fields as diverse as mathematics, computer science and quantum mechanics (sadly, he was also a member of the Manhattan Project and had proposed Kyoto as the target of the bomb; this was overruled in favour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Despite his immense contributions to the architecture of modern computers, the lasting bone of contention today is whether von Neumann was first and foremost a mathematician or a physicist. One of the stories that my college physics teacher enjoyed telling, in the context of discussing a Resnick-Halliday problem about the total distance travelled by a bird flying back and forth between two approaching trains, was that von Neumann had confounded scholars by solving a similar problem using the long-winded mathematician's approach (forming an infinite geometric series) but faster than the quicker common-sense physicist's strategy (calculating the time elapsed before the trains collide and multiplying it by the bird's constant speed)!

Von Neumann, Gödel and Einstein were among the first set of faculty members hired by the newly formed IAS in 1930, allegedly as an asylum for Jewish émigré who were refused positions at Princeton University because of its anti-Semitic policies. Stories abound about Einstein and Gödel walking to work during the summer months, and even today driving past Einstein's simple house at 112 Mercer Street is an inspiring experience.

Einstein himself was not buried. After his brain was removed and preserved for scientific research, his body was cremated and ashes scattered in the nearby Raritan river. Interestingly, during the ceremony, lines from a half-forgotten elegy were repeated: "He gleams like some departing meteor bright/Combining, with his own, eternal light." This dirge had been written by the grief-stricken Goethe for his friend Friedrich Schiller, whose Ode to Joy was put to music by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, and which Einstein would play on his piano (he was adept at it in addition to the violin). Thus, Einstein's funeral miraculously combined elements from some of his greatest compatriots, and was a fitting farewell to a man who had claimed if not a physicist, he would probably have been a musician.

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

James Shirley, Death the Leveller

Dial M for Moriarty

Any child growing up with Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats may be forgiven for thinking that T S Eliot is the master par excellence of children's literature, a post-modern cross between Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Indeed, this slim volume's whimsical verses have delighted children and adults alike, especially after Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted the poems for his musical hit Cats, and introduced us to the hitherto hidden world of complex cat-names. Who would have thought that the felines we trivially call Tabby or Kitty or Pussy, are actually named Mungojerrie or Deuteronomy or Skimbleshanks? And of all the cats that have captured our imagination, none is more infamous than Macavity, the mystery cat.

What is less known is that Macavity, the criminal mastermind behind every domestic disturbance and national crisis, was modelled after Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' arch nemesis. Not only did they resemble each other physically (tall and thin with high domed foreheads and reptilian body movements), but even intellectually they shared a similar interest in mathematics.

Moriarty, who was born to a respectable family and received an upper class education, won acclaim and adulation at the early age of twenty-one with his Treatise on the Binomial Theorem and the subsequent publication of his esoteric tome, The Dynamics of an Asteroid. These were instrumental in catapulting him to a wider European audience and raised him to the Chair of Mathematics at a small English university. He was however forced to resign his position after it became apparent that his academic robe was a facade for his role as Mafia Godfather of the criminal underworld.

Since his death on May 4, 1891, literally in the hands of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland (the actual spot is immortalised by a plaque), speculation has been rife as to the true identity of Professor Moriarty and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for the character. Disregarding the school of thought that believes that Holmes and Moriarty are one and the same (since Watson never actually meets Moriarty, it is alleged that Holmes created this alter-ego to relieve his tedium), the scientific works on which Moriarty's academic credentials rest are similar to Srinivasa Ramanujan's generalisations of the binomial theorem and Carl Friedrich Gauss' paper on the orbit of the planetoid Ceres Ferdinandea. Even as the Journal of British Astronomical Association bemoaned in a 1993 article that Britain's greatest criminal was regretfully a member of the astronomy community, it also revealed that Moriarty may have been modelled after astronomer Simon Newcomb, just as Moriarty's henchman Sebastian Moran was inspired by Newcomb's professional peer Alfred Drayson.

Another interesting parallel is drawn by Holmes scholar, H R F Keating, who highlights a biographical similarity between Professor Moriarty and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a contemporary who gained the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel at the age of twenty-four, but had to resign it due to his deteriorating health and unconventional ideas ("God is dead"). Holmes himself has compared Moriarty with eighteenth century thief-taker Jonathan Wild, while the expression "Napoleon of Crime", used by Holmes to describe Moriarty, was actually reserved by Scotland Yard for Adam Worth, a German-born gentleman criminal.

Whatever be the antecedents and pedigree of Moriarty and Macavity, their exploits have spiced up the annals of criminology, offering timeless thrills to readers, and may have caused Satyajit Ray to christen his detective Feluda's sworn adversary, Maganlal Meghraj, with the letter M.

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

T S Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats