Born on July 17th, 1982 in Craiova and deceased on June 5th, 2012 in New York, Mihai Patrascu was the most important Romanian computer scientist of his time.
Those who understood his genius say he single handedly revitalized an entire field of research. This article pays tribute to Mihai Pătrașcu as seen through the eyes and hearts of the most important people in his life.
Mihai Pătrașcu revolutionized theoretical computer science, though he graduated from “Carol I” National College in Craiova where his school had no computer science curriculum.
He excelled at his field at MIT, one of world’s most prestigious Computer Science programs. During his first year in America he was named the top Computer Science student in the United States.
Mihai Pătrașcu was accustomed to being first. He actually authored the questions for Computer Science Olympiads and held his own conferences wherever Computer Science conferences were held.
In less than three decades of life he managed to get married, divorced, remarried, cross a continent, climb Kilimanjaro, travel the world and make a name for himself among the most prestigious researchers in America.
He taught himself Mandarin in just a few weeks. He didn’t wear a suit. He never held a nine to five job. In his own words, he was a rebel. He was tough but fair to colleagues in the Computer Science community. He was loved but feared.
Mihai Pătrașcu was always someone special.
I first heard about Mihai’s life in a Bucharest tavern. It was one of those early summer days where the lust for life abounds. Friends were gathered around a table eating grilled squid with Greek music serenading in the background.
One friend at the table, Corina Tarniță, a young mathematics researcher, made a comment about her ex-husband that mesmerized me. I needed to learn more about this guy.
My search began with Mihai’s 30-year-old sister, Carmen. We met early on an August morning and her blindingly intelligent eyes and lucid expressions immediately impressed me. We laughed quite a lot as she told us some of Mihai’s favorite jokes.
Carmen also holds a Ph.D. in Science. She studied at the Polytechnic University in Bucharest and can tell you a lot about synthetic aperture radar or about the European Space Agency. She still teaches at the Polytechnic and does image processing work for the mobile phone industry.
We drove to Craiova to meet Mihai’s parents, mathematics Professor Mariana Pătrașcu and dermatologist Virgil Pătrașcu. It’s horrible to stare at people in mourning and tell them you would like to see old photos of their deceased son.
Many times, silence prevailed. We stayed in the living room, looking at their dead son’s portrait without saying a word.
Mihai Pătrașcu’s parents have been marked by this tragedy. His father wears a long, white patriarchal beard. Some nights he writes poems. His mother breathes to the rhythm of a troubling fragility.
I went up the stairs and gazed at Mihai’s book collection. An entire shelf was dedicated to Agatha Christie. Novels that didn’t put his formidable mind to work bored him.
PART 1: MIHAI AND CARMEN
Mihai was four years older than Carmen. They weren’t just brother and sister. They were best friends. Decades ago, an innocent conversation took place between the two children. “Do we have to like our relatives?”
They reached the conclusion that they didn’t have to like people just because they were relatives. They also concluded they would have liked each other even if they hadn’t been siblings.
Mihai didn’t mentor Carmen, and she didn’t try to copy his passions. She never took much interest in his computer science achievements. On the contrary, Mihai followed Carmen in her passion for guitar.
She already played it well when her brother tried his first chords. Mihai liked Romanian rock. His favorite bands were Phoenix and Cargo. Once, he even composed a song about a bear and a sand storm.
Mihai inspired Carmen to be curious, to believe in herself, to follow through her work from start to finish, and to seize all of life’s moments.
Carmen and Mihai came from a family of intellectuals. Their mother’s parents were teachers. Their paternal grandfather, a math professor, founded the school in Craiova where his grandchildren began their education. Their uncle excelled in engineering and has been living in Philadelphia for decades.
“When I was very young Mihai gave me one of the first books he owned, a Computer Science book, and he wrote this dedication on it: ‘Always ask yourself what books cannot answer’ That really hit home with me,” Carmen recalls.
Mihai discovered his vocation very quickly. He started learning Computer Science in 2nd grade at a Children’s Club in Craiova.
The fad, back then, was for boys to specialize in electronics:
“Our folks wanted to send him to the Children’s Club, but there weren’t any open spots left for electronics. They were offered Computer Science as an alternative. Mother had finished Mathematics and Computer Science, but she had only seen two computers in her life. Both were old and card-based. We were far behind the rest of the world, but she said ‘OK’, and that’s how it started.”
He participated in the Olympiad when he was very young, going against peers older than him. In third grade he won first prize, which was the beginning of many.”
Mihai excelled in all subjects, though math came easiest to him. Mihai did not endear himself to his colleagues during his first few years at school. To them, he was a bigheaded geek. He didn’t pay much attention to them either. With every passing year, though, as Mihai was making history in the United States, he gained the respect of his former classmates.
Mihai’s thirst for knowledge was insatiable. Carmen remembers him reading pages from Wikipedia when he had a free moment. At the time, Wikipedia was foreign to most of us.
Mihai did little programming until college – when he found his niche in Theoretical Computer Science. This is where he started to work wonders. His work received thousands of citations from internationally renowned authors. For the theoretical part of his work, he didn’t even need a computer. A paper and pencil were the only tools he required.
Carmen was proud of her brother. It wasn’t an empty or absurd pride, the kind that screams, “Wow, he’s famous, people know him…” It was different: pride in the fact he did what he liked and was very good at it.
They loved the mountains. It was a common passion and they hiked together often. For Mihai, the mountain vistas represented a world without limits. But Mihai never forgot his math problems while hiking. On the contrary, he kept processing and pioneering new frontiers.
Mihai never spent a lot of money, but he didn’t rob himself of his passion to travel the world.
“We had millions of plans,” recounts Carmen. “We wanted to travel the Trans-Siberia and Peru. Mihai liked Peru the most of all the countries he visited because it reminded him of his childhood in Romania.”
Mihai was diagnosed with Glioblastoma in January 2011 after returning from a ski trip with severe headache. Told he would not live longer than 18 months with this incurable cancer, Mihai made it to the 18th month. When cancer took away his right hand, he continued to solve problems on random pieces of scrap paper with his left hand. Cancer never stole his determination or zest for life.
It’s hard to talk about death. A moment creeps in when Cami lowers her voice and says, “I miss him. We used to talk about anything and everything. He was my best friend. A large chunk of my life disappeared with him.”
Though Mihai is gone, his story continues and their mutual friends often bring him up in conversation. Carmen doesn’t go to the cemetery and leaves no flowers on his grave. She doesn’t think it’s a place where she’ll meet her brother.
Carmen would not like us to write pathetically about her brother.
“Mihai was very complex, you know? He wasn’t obsessed with work. He led a very full life – had a beautiful family life, he wanted
to learn many things, you know, honestly curious about everything that happened around him. He understood current events and geopolitics just as well as the scientific article he would write the following day. He was a truly remarkable researcher, but also so much more. He wasn’t just the sum of his academic achievements.”
“Mihai wanted to come back home, he was very patriotic in this way, but things weren’t very easy in Romania at the time. One of the things that annoyed him was if you wanted to get a research grant, you had to commit to the end result. But that’s what research is about – it may or it may not work. You could have some hypothesis about the outcome… But you can’t submit to a rule that states that if you don’t get the expected results then your work won’t be financed. It’s stupid. Mihai didn’t like stupid things.”
PART II: CORINA AND MIHAI
Corina and Mihai met in 1998 while vacationing in Greece. It was a prize for the Romanian Olympiad winners. She had won the Math Olympiad and he had won in Computer Science.
It is easy to imagine Ms. Tarniță as the most beautiful girl at the event and the young Mr. Pătrașcu charming her with his brilliant intelligence.
Mihai took the first step. He asked for her friendship. They were both deeply committed to high performance in education and becoming leaders
in their field. They also made time for a normal adolescent life. Love would have to come later.
When they were married, recounts Corina, they were too young and too stubborn. Neither knew what it meant to build a life with someone. It wasn’t America that split them apart, it was maturity.
Divorced, they continued to respect each other, maybe even love each other. They talked about science and co-signed scientific papers, but they somehow stopped being husband and wife.
What’s it like living with a genius? Corina assures us it’s extraordinary and normal at the same time: “It’s extraordinary to live with someone who doesn’t accept anything as dogma, but tries to understand everything himself, starting from axioms, from basic principles. And he doesn’t just try, he succeeds.”
All the same, Mihai led a normal and balanced life; went to the movies, took long walks, worked out, had beer with friends, went to the supermarket – where novelty candy fascinated him.
Corina would go on to tell us something that would take our breath away:
“I was very impressed when Mihai wanted to tell me about his disease in person, although we had been divorced for years. He had moved to New York, but we met in Boston and chatted for a few hours. We saw each other again in New York, by chance, during his treatment.
“Then the horrifying news came – a message from Mihai in which he told me that he only had a few months to live and that he wanted to see me. I visited him at his New York apartment and we talked for hours about everything – life, death, spirituality, the meaning of it all, science, people. It was one of our most profound and direct conversations. Even at the very end, Mihai remained a fantastically lucid scientist. I told him about my research and he asked me dozens of questions, sometimes coming from angles that I hadn’t even thought of. He reminded me
of our most precious moments together, and when I left I felt a profound pain. I knew I wasn’t going to see him again.”
Clinging to hope, Corina searched online for miracle cures, revolutionary treatment and suggested world renowned doctors to Mihai. He didn’t respond to any of her messages.
Then, Corina started to send him jokes and he replied instantly. They kept in touch like that for the last six weeks of his life.
“Mihai was entirely special. At any moment – even when he was out shopping or when he brushed his teeth, he could think of an extremely complex problem. The mental workout to which he subjected himself was incredible, even though people around him had no clue. But he knew when to take breaks and how to enjoy them.”
“I went to America with Mihai mostly because of him. Before we met, I knew Harvard would be my ideal choice, but I don’t know if I would have had the courage to leave home. Mihai was the kind of person who stuck to his guns when he put his mind to something. I remain profoundly indebted to him for convincing me to follow my dream.”
PART III: MIHAI AND HIS PARENTS
It’s autumn when we reach Craiova. Mihai’s parents live in a two-story house close to the city center. Virgil Pătrașcu M.D. wears his white beard as a sign of mourning. Professor Mariana Pătrașcu takes a long look at us, as if wondering why we’re here.
They agree to talk about their departed son. They show us his medals and diplomas. They retell old stories. An almost physical sense of sadness hovers over everything.
They are proud of what their son has accomplished. Not many finished their Ph.D. in record time, especially in America. Not many have stepped on the podium as many times as Mihai. Computer scientists don’t get to stand on podiums like athletes.
We talk about Mihai’s first marriage, about his first year in college in Craiova, waiting for Corina to finish high school so they could leave together. We talk about the divorce – Mihai thought it would be the biggest loss of his life. But it wasn’t, he married another high school colleague. His parents think she was more interested in the things that Mihai loved – motorcycles, mountain climbing and gastronomy.
They were proud their son could earn thousands of dollars a month and that he didn’t need anything. They missed him in America, but Mihai came back home often.
Once he surprised them. During a routine Skype with his mother he told her that he heard the doorbell, and that she should go and see who it was. Sure enough, it was Mihai.
Virgil sometimes wakes up at night and thinks he’s seeing his son through the window, but quickly realizes it was nothing. On nights like those, the doctor writes poetry.
The Pătrașcu’s remember their son kept asking questions that young people shouldn’t be thinking. Why do people die? Why aren’t mature people able to discover something that will forever defeat death? He would have liked to have worked on that.
Over time in the US, Mihai developed a strong sense of patriotism. Mihai had a good friend, Alex Andoni, from Chișinău. They made plans about how they could save Romania and Bessarabia from the burden we all bear. At one international Olympiad, Mihai even wore traditional Romanian garb.
Mihai Pătrașcu was a giving man. He didn’t try to convince anyone he was right. He respected different points of view, as intelligent people do.
His mother tells us that he had a beautiful voice that made you listen. He made everything seem easy.
What about flaws? His writing was horrible, says Professor Pătrașcu. He also stubbornly wanted to climb mountains, even when he wasn’t prepared.
Seven Medals, three silver, four gold – Medals won by Mihai Pătrașcu at International Computer Science Olympiads. The medals aren’t entirely made of gold. When Mihai graduated, his high school had won 35 medals from international events.
Mihai didn’t take his medals with him to America. He left them at home. He only took his guitar. The prizes are still in Craiova, even the prestigious Presburger, which he received posthumously.
The Presburger Award is a prize given by the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science to the best young researcher in the field. Mihai became aware that he won the award in a ceremony announcing the winners just before he died.
Each year his parents present the “Mihai Pătrașcu’s Excellence Award”. The prize is awarded to the highest-ranking Olympiad winner from Romania and has a value of 500 Euro. The first laureate was Vlad Gavrilă, now a student at Cambridge. Vlad Gavrilă is one of the two Romanians who surpassed Mihai for the number of gold medals won in international Computer Science Olympiads. Vlad Gavrilă said that out of all the prizes he has won, the Mihai Pătrașcu Excellence Award is the one he holds most dear.
Mihai Pătrașcu was the leader of his national Olympiad team. His mother recounts his victories: 10th grade, Borneo, gold; 11th grade, China, gold; 12th grade, Finland, gold…
His father shows us a piece of paper scribbled with signs impossible to read. It’s the last paper his son worked on. Mihai worked for a number of large companies while in America. He was working with AT&T when he died. While working for IBM in San Francisco his mother recalled hearing the sounds of ocean waves in the background while the skyped.
Virgil Pătrașcu remembers his son walking aimlessly with his hands in his pockets. That’s how
he imagined him in New York City. No one would have guessed he’s going through the limits of an algorithm in his head.
Mihai Pătrașcu’s death was dignified. His biggest worry was the peace of those around him. Many of his work colleagues didn’t even know he was ill. He kept writing articles, publishing, participating in the conference circuit. The last time he went to a conference was in Japan in 2012.
We kept looking through old photos from the family’s personal archive. There’s Mihai at 10. There he is at his marriage to Corina in 2002. There he is again in 2008, at his wedding with Mira in the mountains – at a guest house in Ciunget. At the seaside, where he had long hair. At Disneyland and wearing a traditional shepherd costume bought in Sibiu (he brought it with him all the way to America!).
We take these words with us, spoken by Virgil Pătrașcu, who lost his son: “Maybe we had to pay for all the joy Mihai brought us while we were together.
There is no word in Romanian that describes such a human being.
“If I ever imagined something like this would happen to us, I’d have said that we wouldn’t be able to bear it – to be someone who loses their child. Still, we are involved in all types of activities, to make sure we are always busy. That’s how we are hanging on.” – Virgil Pătrașcu, Mihai Pătrașcu’s father
PART IV: MIHAI AND MIKKEL
Mikkel Thorup was Mihai’s research fellow in the US and a close friend. Mikkel has returned home to Denmark and teaches a course in algorithms and data structures in Copenhagen.
Aside from work, they told jokes, jogged, played squash and drank beer. Mikkel said they wouldn’t have succeeded if not for the beers and the squash. They once worked on a problem for 18 months. The social activities made the frustration of not finding a solution more bearable.
Even in Mihai’s last months it was difficult for him to accept the fact that his friend would die. They still had fun together. Then Mihai lost function in the left side of the brain, leaving his arm and his leg paralyzed. That’s when they stopped joking.
His final memories of Mihai? The gratitude on his face for Mira and Carmen’s care and the energy and concentration that radiated from his eyes.
Mikkel refers me to one on Mihai’s papers recently published by the Berkeley Simons Institute. It’s his way of saying Mihai isn’t dead. His work continues to inspire people on all continents. His work continues to open new avenues.
“Mihai made plans to return to Romania, just as I made plans to go back to Denmark – which I did. I’m sure he would have done the same.” – Mikkel Thorup, Danish researcher
PART V: MIRA AND MIHAI
Mirabela Bodic, now a psychiatrist in New York, went to high school with Mihai where they sat across from each other in English and Math class.
Mihai hardly ever went to class. She remembers thinking in 12th grade “Everybody is fascinated by this man, how he is a genius and how special he is, I would like to test him on his multi-tasking skills…”
So she asked Mihai to follow her index finger as she made a semi-circle around his head while he’s
answering basic questions such as “What did you eat for breakfast?” or “How did you get to school?”
Mihai Pătrașcu bombed the test. It was impossible for him to concentrate and answer questions at the same time. She told him, “Dude, you have won gold at international Olympiads, you do so many things, but you can’t do this?” Mihai laughed as well.
Years later, they met on the train station platform in Bucharest on the way to Tulcea. She didn’t recognize him. He had lost weight and now sported a thick beard. “He looked more like a hippie than the geek from high school”.
He had changed for the better. He had become more sociable and adventurous. They had the same passions and the same fearless spirit. They fell in love and were soon married. Mira multi-tasked the practical matters and Mihai remained the consummate theorist.
After marriage, they lived in Boston, San Francisco and finally in New York, where she felt most at ease. In New York people are from everywhere and no one feels like a stranger there. New York became their home.
She remembers Mihai lying on the couch, drawing something in the air. She wondered what he was doing. He said he was writing a formula, thinking of an algorithm. She suggested he use paper. He said he preferred to draw in the air because it was easier to erase things.
Mira and Mihai had plans: they were going to work in the US for 10 years, save money, have children, and then return to Bucharest when the kids were old enough to start school. In America, performance in education starts at the university level.
Living so far away from Craiova brought out the patriot in Mira as well. She had a Romanian flag hanging by a nightlight in the living room. They were encouraged by events in Romania. They saw progress.
They didn’t discuss death; they didn’t think of it. Mira asks, rhetorically, “Who thinks about dying when they’re 27?”
Actually, the subject came up once, when they were climbing Kilimanjaro without adequate equipment. He told her then, “If I die, at least I die doing something I like!”
January 1st, 2011 came too soon. Mira was in her second year of psychiatry residency in New York. It was a Saturday.
Mihai had a splitting headache, and the doctor asked him, “How much did you have to drink last night at the party?”
Nothing. The doctor kept joking and thought his patient couldn’t have anything more than a sinus problem, until after the CT scan…
When he showed the scan to Mira, her world collapsed. “I thought maybe I shouldn’t have been a doctor, that way I wouldn’t have known what it meant. Mihai’s father must have felt the same. There wasn’t even a chance.”
The last year of Mihai’s life was marked by his insistence that everyone live normally. He didn’t spend more than ten days in the hospital, even with all the operations and biopsies. Mihai Pătrașcu died at home.
“Would he want to read this article?” We asked Mira. She thinks so because Mihai had a big mouth and would have given us juicier details. She says we would have more clearly understood his integrity. He was a man of strong convictions and had the backbone to stand up for them.
Everyone who knew Mihai Pătrașcu remembers he pushed the limits to the very edge, as if life itself were an algorithm – and that its limits needed to be challenged.
He wasn’t the kind of person who shone light on his own success. He didn’t care what people thought of him. Mihai Pătrașcu lived as a free man.
Everywhere he lived in the States he was surrounded by people. Mihai enjoyed inviting Romanians to live with him. That was his treasure, his generosity, says Mira. It was priceless, more than any treasure.
Mira feels lucky, although she’s a widow at 30. Mihai was a passionate man, able to feel strong emotion without digressing into the pathetic.
She doesn’t want us to write that he was perfect, because he wasn’t. She wants us to write about the simple truths of his life.
“I wouldn’t want to read about his academic achievements again. It’s not that they don’t impress, but for friends and family they were less important. We didn’t love Mihai because of them. I’ve read articles about extraordinary people who died at young ages, in tragic circumstances, and they tend to be exaggerated and ultimately deviate from the positive.”
We won’t use that angle. We met Mihai Pătrașcu through the collective memories of his friends and family. We want to save him from oblivion. A Jewish proverb says that by saving the memory of one man, the entire world is saved.