Mihai was four years older than Carmen. They weren't just brother and sister. They were best friends. Sometime, decades ago, a very mature discussion took place between them: "Do we have to like our relatives?"
They reached the correct conclusion that no, they didn't have to like people just because they were relatives. They also concluded they would have liked each other even if they wouldn't have been siblings.
Mihai didn't mentor Carmen and she didn't try to copy his passions. She never took much interest 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. Something about a bear and a sand storm.
They were very young when they took their first IQ test. They both took the same test. Carmen goes by the name Cami. Cami remembers she scored higher than Mihai. No one refutes that.
There was competition between them, but also a coherent spirit. Mihai Pătrașcu had fun solving the most complicated problems. He always preferred freedom to being a conformist.
He chose to go to "Carol I" in Craiova because the school was more permissive with Olympic students. At "Frații Buzești", his other option, he had to be more attentive with subjects that bored him.
Even so, 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, he gained the respect of children who were slowly becoming adults.
At his death, forums hosted by the Craiovan newspapers buzzed. One of his colleagues posted that he remembered Mihai Pătrașcu as arrogant, never in line with everyone else. The author would admit, though, that it was a sign of a superior mind and Mihai had actually been admired and envied throughout his life.
Carmen and Mihai come from a family of intellectuals. The mother's parents were teachers. The grandfather, a Math professor, founded the school in Craiova where his grandchildren started learning. Carmen and Mihai's uncle excelled in Engineering and has been living in Philadelphia for decades.
Mihai could teach you what knowledge was all about, because he was really keen on it. Carmen remembers him thusly: reading whole pages from Wikipedia anytime he could. At the time, Wikipedia was foreign to most of us.
Then, there were the books.
"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.
She also remembers something else: Mihai discovered his vocation very quickly. He was in second grade when he started learning Computer Science at a Children's Club in Craiova.
The fad, back then, was that boys would 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 and both were old and card-based. We were far behind the rest of the world, but she said 'OK', so 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 got first prize, which was the beginning of many.”
Carmen and Mihai were told to make their own decisions in life. Carmen, for instance, decided to stay at the Polytechnic University despite everyone expecting her to leave for the States. Why?
Romania's poor railroad infrastructure is to blame. She spent weekends in Iași preparing for America. She took all sorts of exams, endured stifling bureaucracy and decided she’d had enough.
Meanwhile, Mihai was making history in the United States.
What was Mihai working on? What was he doing? We ask Carmen to explain these things to us, the uninitiated. She tells us one of his great passions was finding out the limits to algorithms. There you go!
They loved the mountains. It became a passion and they went often. But Mihai never forgot his math problems while hiking. On the contrary, he kept processing.
Although there is no debate on whether he was the most important Romanian computer scientist of our time, Mihai did little programming until college - when he found a niche in Theoretical Computer Science.
It was only there he started to work wonders. His works had 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. And he wasn't picky. Carmen tells us that he used to jot down solutions on anything, anywhere.
In A Tale of Love and Darkness, the Israeli author Amos Oz remembers this ritual: the phone call to out of town relatives. It was an entire ceremony, repeated with regularity.
The same things were said over the phone; everyone was fine, even when they weren't. These calls couldn't happen just anytime, so they were carefully used.
The first few conversations across the ocean between Carmen and Mihai were similar. At first, they had a weekly conversation where parents held priority. The kids wrote emails to each other. Then they had Yahoo Messenger, and they always kept a chat session open.
Mihai married Corina Tarniță when he was 20 and she was 19. They left for the United States together. Corina would study Math at Harvard. Mihai would specialize at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
They lived on a campus for married couples, a sort of studio. Rents were high in the city. Corina's parents, like Mihai’s, were a doctor and a professor, so they could not afford to support her.
Carmen and Corina were friends; not the best of friends. Mihai kept his private life private.
Carmen still doesn't know why they broke up. It probably happened because they were both working, attending conferences and weren't in the same field. Most likely because they were much too young and America is far away, a foreign continent where everything is different.
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.
Mihai never spent a lot of money, but he didn't rob himself of pleasure. He would never said no to sweets.
Both Carmen and Mihai are born in July, he's Cancer, but she's Leo. Carmen is expansive. Mihai was mostly quiet, and didn't speak unless he thought it was worth saying.
"We had millions of plans," recounts Carmen. "We wanted to travel the Trans-Siberian, he would come to my Ph.D. ceremony dressed in his MIT robe, to give the whole affair a more solemn tone. [The Romanian] graduation ceremony isn't very festive."
They wanted to travel to Peru. Mihai had already been there and left a post online in which he confided that he liked it the most out of all the countries he visited. It reminded him of Romania in the 90s, of his childhood.
Mihai in Peru (left), and in China.
Carmen is the person who visited Mihai the most during his sickness. She was also first - after Mirabela – to find out he had a tumor.
It was January 1st, 2011. Mihai and Mira had just returned from skiing and he had a bad headache and thought he’d caught a cold. Mirabela, a psychiatrist in New York, convinced him to get a CAT scan at the hospital and... Mihai laughingly told his sister the news.
He asked her to guess where he is, giving just one clue: "I have room service". When Carmen found out where he was, she thought maybe he had an accident, given his penchant for extreme sports. But...
Mihai Pătrașcu wasn't a religious man. We asked whether he needed it. Carmen replied without hesitation. "No."
He was firmly against religion, he believed in the work of humans. But he was warm and thought it was his duty to help others. He was charismatic and it wasn't hard to like him.
Mihai Pătrașcu died in New York. The disease that killed him is called cerebral glioblastoma (GBM). It's a very aggressive tumor, composed of varying and difficult to treat cancer cells. When diagnosed, life expectancy, on average, is a year and a half. Mihai did not make it past that.
In regards to his condition, we see how he followed all the advice given by doctors, but he did not want to renounce on life and the freedom to live it. He continued to solve problems, to write on random scraps of paper with his left hand, even though he was ambidextrous.
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. He's often brought up in conversation by their mutual friends. He reigns over them from somewhere. 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.
He taught her to be curious and to believe in herself, whatever she might do, to follow through her work, start to finish, to seize all of life’s moments.
Mihai knew how to cook. He even learned how to make a traditional Romanian cake served at funerals. He offered it to his American colleagues, who were amazed at this "death cake". He's the one who kept their grandparents' sponge cake recipe alive.
Carmen would like us not 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 was someone who 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, from the get-go, to the end result. But that's what research is about - it may or it may not work; you could have some assumptions about the outcome... But you can't submit to a rule that states that if you don't get the expected results your work won’t be financed. It's stupid. Mihai didn't like stupid things."
Carmen Pătrașcu (photo), Mihai Pătrașcu's sister.