The Housekeeper and the Professor
Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the
Professor, the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No
doubt he would have been bothered by my use of the word countless - too sloppy, for he believed that the very origins of the
universe could be explained in the exact language of numbers - but I dont know
how else to put it. He taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a
hundred thousand places, and the largest number of all, which was used in
mathematical proofs and was in the Guinness
Book of Records, and about the idea of something beyond infinity. As
interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience of simply
spending time with the Professor. I remember when he taught us about the spell
cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. It was a rainy evening in
early April. My sons schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light in the
Professors study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree
were heavy with rain.
The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the "correct miscalculation," for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.
"Then what happens if you take the square root of negative one?" he asked.
"So youd need to get -1 by multiplying a number by itself?" Root asked. He had just learned fractions at school, and it had taken a half-hour lecture from the Professor to convince him that numbers less than zero even existed, so this was quite a leap. We tried picturing the square root of negative one in our heads: √-1. The square root of 100 is 10; the square root of 16 is 4; the square root of 1 is 1. So the square root of -1 is . . .
He didnt press us. On the contrary, he fondly studied our expressions as we mulled over the problem.
"There is no such number," I said at last, sounding rather tentative.
"Yes, there is," he said, pointing at his chest. "Its in here. Its the most discreet sort of number, so it never comes out where it can be seen. But its here." We fell silent for a moment, trying to picture the square root of minus one in some distant, unknown place. The only sound was the rain falling outside the window. My son ran his hand over his head, as if to confirm the shape of the square root symbol.
But the Professor didnt always insist on being the teacher. He had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge, and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of negative one itself. Whenever he needed my help, he would interrupt me in the most polite way. Even the simplest request - that I help him set the timer on the toaster, for example - always began with "Im terribly sorry to bother you, but . . ." Once Id set the dial, he would sit peering in as the toast browned. He was as fascinated by the toast as he was by the mathematical proofs we did together, as if the truth of the toaster were no different from that of the Pythagorean theorem.
It was March of 1992 when the Akebono Housekeeping Agency first sent me to work for the Professor. At the time, I was the youngest woman registered with the agency, which served a small city on the Inland Sea, although I already had more than ten years of experience. I managed to get along with all sorts of employers, and even when I cleaned for the most difficult clients, the ones no other housekeeper would touch, I never complained. I prided myself on being a true professional.
Excerpted from The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Copyright © 2009 by Yoko Ogawa. Excerpted by permission of Picador, a division of Macmillan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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