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Life by the numbers

How counting embodies the passions of a mathematician, a musician and a runner

October 11, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST


This sequential date will recur in 2013 and 2014, but then it won’t happen for another 32,161 days. It got us thinking about numbers and how they affect our everyday lives.

We obsess over fantasy football stats, whine about gas prices and fixate on money, but as a society, we tend to take numbers for granted. What about the people who don’t? What about the people who live by numerals, the people whose passions are dictated by the act of counting?

Stephen Montgomery-Smith is a mathematician; he’s spent 17 years trying to solve an equation that could yield a $1 million reward. Tim Caton is a drummer; he counts beats, plays them, surrounds himself with them — the beat is his livelihood. Steve Stonecipher-Fisher is a marathon runner; to him, a few seconds can be the difference between failure and success.

These individuals don’t take numbers for granted. Numbers are a part of who they are.

Marathon runner Steve Stonecipher-Fisher uses his watch to track speed, distance and time. Photograph by Yi-Chin Lee

A million-dollar math problem

Papers plaster the numerous shelves and mismatched furniture. A discarded coffee cup in the sea of white pops like a Warhol painting. In one corner, an outdated keyboard sits at an angle in a moving box, supported by even more piles of paper.

“Sorry it’s a little messy,” Stephen Montgomery-Smith says in his warm British accent. He leads the way to his desk, where more forgotten items and stacks of sheets are strewn about. An old chalkboard, scribbled with grid lines, hangs on one wall in the classroom-turned office. Family photos sit on top of a filing cabinet and overlook the room. He plops into a chair, pushes his glasses back and sifts through a bag. Although he looks the part of the absent-minded professor with an unkempt beard and wiry eyebrows, Montgomery-Smith gets straight to business.

“I’m here to sell math, huh?” he says. “Luckily I have some stories ready.”

Since 1995, Montgomery-Smith has been trying to solve the Navier-Stokes problem, which some mathematicians and physicists believe, if solved, could predict weather patterns sooner. The equation is composed of four fundamental components: fluid continuity, the equation of motion, constitutive relation and fluid kinematics. Meteorologists already rely on computers with approximations based on these equations, but solving the Navier-Stokes could mean predicting patterns months or even a year in advance. To do so, many variables would need to be put into the equation.

“If they could solve it, it would have all of these applications — building better boats, better air conditioning systems — the applications are boundless,” Montgomery- Smith says. “Not only can’t they solve it, they don’t even know if it has a solution.”

Claude-Louis Navier, a French engineer-physicist, and George Gabriel Stokes, an Irish mathematician-physicist, are the namesakes of this problem and published their derivation of these equations in 1845. Montgomery-Smith first heard about the problem when he was studying at the University of Cambridge. “Something about it just gripped me,” he says.

In May 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute announced The Millennium Prize Problems. Seven of the most difficult problems facing mathematicians were selected by the institute, which designated a $7 million prize fund for the solutions. For every problem solved, $1 million will be awarded to the winner. The Navier-Stokes equation is one of the seven.

A Russian mathematician, Grigori Perelman, solved the Poincaré conjecture, which was one of the millennial prizes. He turned down the $1 million because he considered his solution to be no more important than those of Richard Hamilton, a mathematician who is revered for formulating the Ricci Flow, an intrinsic geometric evolution equation. There has been speculation that Perelman is currently working on the Navier-Stokes problem.

“I often joke that if I learned Russian and grew out my beard, I could pass for Perelman,” Montgomery-Smith says. “Then I could collect the $1 million and stop thinking about the Navier-Stokes.”

Jokes aside, Montgomery-Smith is not after the money. After all, he has been attempting to solve the equation since before it even became known as a million-dollar question. Despite his initial intrigue, Montgomery-Smith believes the equation doesn’t have a definite solution; if he can prove that it’s unsolvable via a counter-example, he still might be eligible for the million-dollar prize.

“There are two ways to look at mathematics,” Montgomery-Smith says. “There is the sheer beauty of mathematics, which is how the Greeks and pure mathematicians like myself practice it, and then there is a more utilitarian, engineering mindset.”

As a pure mathematician, Montgomery-Smith explains that proving an unsolved equation requires backward logic. “It’s kind of like the liar paradox,” he says. “You can say, ‘I am not a liar,’ but you then have to prove rubbish.”

Montgomery-Smith started teaching at MU in 1988 and was granted tenure in 1995. Most of his ongoing research has been dedicated to Navier-Stokes, which he admits has been “somewhat of a career killer.” Choosing a project that has no certain outcome might be enthralling, but the uncertainty can stagnate professional growth. The hours and years spent on Navier-Stokes has taken time away from other research possibilities.

Working on the problem goes beyond staring at partial differential equations. Montgomery-Smith will dream about the equation and then go months without thinking about it. Other times, he will find himself in the middle of dinner or watching television, and something clicks.

“Ninety-nine out of every 100 epiphanies I have will result in nothing,” Montgomery-Smith says. “There are times that I sit on an idea for weeks because I don’t even want to go there; I’m scared it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Twelve years later, the million-dollar prize is still up for grabs, and Montgomery-Smith believes it might always be. He reclines in his chair, content in his scattered surroundings yet perplexed by the logistical clutter of Navier-Stokes.

“Deep down, I believe I’m going to solve it next week,” he says. “But in reality, it’s an impossible dream.”


If Stephen Montgomery-Smith solves the Navier-Stokes equation, he will be awarded $1 million by the Clay Mathematics Institute. He’s been working on the problem for 17 years. Photograph by Stuart Palley

Staying in rhythm

Tap tap tap tap. Tim Caton taps his pencil on his desk in his hospitality management class. To classmates, it’s an annoying fidget. But Caton heeds a different beat. He feels the pulse of the rhythm and the pattern in the music.

He hears it in the rursh rursh rursh of the dishwasher and the durrl durrl durrl of a running engine. “When you have music running through your head, you make connections to background noise, and you just kind of play along,” Caton says. “I’m always mentally practicing throughout the day.”

Most people who don’t play an instrument are oblivious to the music in the cacophony around them. “When you’re a musician,” Caton says, “you are able to dissect what’s going on.”

As the house drummer for The Penguin Dueling Piano Bar, Caton sets the tempo for crowds of Columbia bar hoppers three nights a week. He slides behind his new Ludwig four-piece set and laces two Zildjian drumsticks between his fingers. Wearing a faded baseball cap backward, Caton taps out a beat while the dueling piano players face off in a battle of jovial personality to test who can make the drunken crowd bellow more. He follows the lead of the pianists and takes his cues from their hand gestures and tempos; he feels their rhythm to develop his own. He’s the pacemaker of pop-rock pianism.

Chucka chucka chucka chuk. Most of the pop songs the audience requests night after night have a simple 4/4 time structure in which each whole note played by the rest of the band merits four beats under Caton’s sticks. The slur of the crowd’s renditions of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Prince’s “Kiss” echoes the tunes played by the pianists. The pace of the drum’s thumping determines the tempo of the crowd’s dances and screams. As Caton plays the beat of “Call Me Maybe” for the third time of the night, the vibrations run through the soles of his shoes in a repetitive murmur. And although his rhythms seem to be mere background noise for a night on the town, the drumming controls the crowd as the patrons subconsciously tap and sway with the beat.

Caton constantly plays with different bandmates as The Penguin features traveling pianists from across the country. He watches different fingers play the same keys week after week as he carefully measures out a tempo. Once he feels the beat, his eyes move to his sticks, and he mentally calculates until he finds the right pattern. The repetitive beats don’t feel monotonous to Caton, who absorbs the notes in each strike.

His mouth forms the words of the counts, a technique his former drum teacher, Mike Edsel, taught him to do. One- two-three-four. Edsel taught him to “say it as you play it,” a rule that ensures that Caton rarely falls off beat. He zones in to internalize the counts and keeps his mind only on what matters. That self-assuredness makes it possible for him to handle the weight of being the bar band timekeeper.

Guitarists and keyboardists shine through their own special riffs, but Caton’s main concern is catering to everyone else’s needs. He finds a kind of beauty in drumming that he first heard when his older brother Steve tapped away at his drum set. Ever since he heard his brother’s prowess, he says he was inspired to craft a skill of his own.

From the moment that Caton knew he’d rather engineer beats than notes, the path that led him to where he is today just fell into place.

He started percussion by playing in the high school band and in a string of nondescript garage jam bands throughout his teenage years. Then one night with his college buddies at The Penguin, he asked the evening’s performer, Johnny Fritts, if he could sit in and play.

“I guess when you think about it, it does kind of sound like a big moment,” Caton says. “I was a little liquored up, and that gave me the courage to walk up there and say, ‘Hey, can I play?’”

This liquid courage was the tonic that led Caton to his first professional gig. He has now been the bar’s only resident drummer for the past 18 months.

“You have to have a kind of unbridled confidence to be the loudest guy in the room,” Caton says with a laugh.

His life follows a beat, but it’s a beat most of us don’t recognize. He lives in a constant state of percussion, of tempo and of music that some might perceive as mere noise. But it just takes the drumsticks in his hands and the pitter-patter of a 4/4 rhythm to show the rest of the world what he hears.


Tim Caton is the house drummer for The Penguin Dueling Piano Bar. He got the job after attending a show at the bar and asking the night’s performer, Johnny Fritts, if he could fill in on drums. Photograph by Stuart Palley

Every stride counts

It’s 1999. Longtime runner Steve Stonecipher-Fisher writes in a Mead college-ruled notebook with a blue ballpoint pen in steady cursive: “September 27. 8 a.m. – 8 miles medium, 28:33.82/26:25.36. 54.59. 8 miles.” The next day, “3 p.m. – 1 mile warm up, 7 miles in 44:14.79, 1 mile medium. 58:56. 9 miles.” Next day, six miles. Then 10 miles. Then eight. Then eight again.

Every dedicated marathon runner needs a logbook.

At least that’s what Tryathletics owner Stonecipher- Fisher says. He’s kept logbooks ever since his early years of running.

Page after page, these logbooks create a flip book of sorts, animating Stonecipher-Fisher’s daily motions from the tough push of a 13-mile run to the calm of an easy five-miler.

It’s Sept. 27, 2012 — thirteen years later. At 7:05 a.m. at the Twin Lakes Recreation Area’s trailhead to the MKT trail, the steady drone of crickets is intermittently punctuated by the peep of a bird. It’s 60 degrees, 15 degrees warmer than the cool 45 that Stonecipher-Fisher prefers.

At about 8:08 a.m., clad in a Saucony shirt, black shorts, New Balance running shoes and a Garmin Forerunner 205 GPS watch, Stonecipher-Fisher begins to run, slowly at first, down the path that winds into the MKT.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. His feet strike the dusty ground in a practiced rhythm. His posture is straight, and his arms follow the footpace, with elbows bent, arms taut and fists clenched. The muscles in his legs flex with each stride. The tension between the tendons and muscles tightens and releases as he quickens his pace.

Stonecipher-Fisher is going to be 56 in a month. He’s been a runner for 41 years. He’s slowed down since his years of running in high school in Sedalia and since his college years at MU. Then he would run 100 miles a week during the summer.

Marathon running can be grueling. It can be painful. It’s 26.2 miles, says Stonecipher-Fisher, of endurance, speed and a committed mindset. It requires a runner to develop patience and pay attention to the constant alternation of intensity, pace and mileage.

A mainstay of marathon training is the long run, a strenuous 17- to 22-mile trek, as well as its post-run recovery period of 10 days. Stonecipher-Fisher says during his training, he would make three long runs over eight to 16 weeks, with two or three weeks between each. At that time, however, he would often run 15 miles. He could therefore space out his long runs prior to the marathon.

Beyond the long run, each marathoner is different and so are his or her preferences. Runners will cover the same 26.2 miles, but in that distance, there is hardly a sense of conformity. How a runner makes it to the finish, from six months ahead of the race to the last 200 meters, depends on the tactics and personality of each runner.

Stonecipher-Fisher reached his peak in 1983. Within 12 months, he ran five marathons. On April 18, 1983, Stonecipher-Fisher ran the Boston Marathon with a final time of 2 hours, 16 minutes and 36 seconds, earning him 37th place and a spot in the 1984 U.S. Olympic team trial in Buffalo, N.Y., the following year.

Stonecipher-Fisher lined up on that warm day in late May along with about 180 other runners. His finish time was 2 hours, 21 minutes and 35 seconds, good for 40th place.

Only the top three runners were sent to the Olympics.

“I was in no danger of going to the Olympic Games,” Stonecipher-Fisher says, laughing. “But, you know, it felt really good. That showed that I was a pretty solid nationally ranking runner. I was good with that.”

Stonecipher-Fisher’s heightened awareness of his body’s abilities and needs lies within every mile and strike of his foot. He runs about 45 miles weekly — about eight miles a run, six times a week. He used to run 60. Although he hasn’t run a marathon in three years, he still has an unwavering passion that shows in his stride.

As the sun rises higher in the sky and fewer crickets chirp, Stonecipher-Fisher finishes his run for the day after 39 minutes, one-hundredth of a second and about 6,000 steps. His complexion is rosy, but he’s barely sweating. Today, he logged five miles.


Stonecipher-Fisher hits the MKT trail for an early morning run. He logs about 45 miles per week. Photograph by Yi-Chin Lee

Comments on this article


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