Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (2000) tells the tale of brilliant mathematician Petros Papachristos, who devotes his life to solving a notoriously difficult problem. His young nephew’s passion to unearth his secret leads to a fascinating denouement which reveals the full existential grandeur of Petros’s dream and the deep mystery of mathematics. This moving novel is an international bestseller, currently translated in twenty-five languages. Together with a handful of other books it is credited with the invention of ‘mathematical fiction’.
Goldbach’s Conjecture (GC) was first stated in 1742, in a letter written by the minor mathematician Christian Goldbach (tutor to the Czar’s children) to the great Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler. A conjecture in mathematics (as in real life) means a statement that, although suspected to be generally valid, has not been proven. Goldbach, in his letter, pointed out to Euler his observation that “every whole number greater than six seems to be the sum of three primes”. He checked it against thousands of cases and always found it to be true – but the whole numbers being infinite, only an abstract proof would cover the general case. This he could not find.
Euler immediately noticed that this statement – if true – breaks up into two:
a) Every even number is the sum of two primes.
b) Every odd number is the sum of three primes.
Today, the former is known by mathematicians as “Goldbach’s Conjecture” while the latter is known as “the second”, the “other” or the “weaker” GC.
The second GC was proven in the mid 1930’s by the great Russian number theorist, Ivan Vinogradov. But the first, or GC plain and simple, (“every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes”) has still to be cracked, even though some of the world’s greatest mathematicians have tried their hands at it.
Because of its notorious difficulty, GC is not the kind of problem that attracts many top class researchers today. Few people want to waste years and years working on a problem that in all probability they will not solve. Mathematics, like all scientific disciplines, is ruled by expediency and fashion, and the classical problems of number theory are not currently deemed ‘à la mode’. One more reason that a major breakthrough with GC seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.
The closest anyone has come to proving GC is a theorem of 1996 by the Chinese mathematician Chen Jing-Run. It proves that “every even number greater than 2 is the sum of a prime and an almost prime – ‘almost prime’ meaning a composite number that has at most two factors.” Although this may sound extremely close to GC, unfortunately there is no obvious step from one to the other.
More Mathematics
‘Petros Papachristos is…the invention of Apostolos Doxiadis. But the story of his life is enriched with so many authentic details from history in general and from science in particular that one feels tempted to look him up in a biographic dictionary. Doxiadis manages to keep the reader’s attention until the tragic end…’
‘delightful and original…Although framed by math, the Uncle Petros story easily extends interest beyond the scientific minded.’
‘intriguing debut…Doxiadis keeps the story engaging by focusing on the development of two compelling characters…the novel is captivating.’
‘An intellectual thriller that manages to convey the high drama and excitement involved in the pursuit of an answer to a mysterious…mathematical theorem…Delightful, fun, well-conceived and nicely executed.’
‘Reads like a fascinating adventure story. Doxiadis has given to literature the mysterious, arcane and sometimes tragic world of abstract mathematics.’
The novel can, and should be, enjoyed as the beautifully written story of a man obsessed by numbers. The mathematics has no greater importance than, say, the biology of dragons in Tolkien’s work. However, professionals in the field will be intrigued…
With “Uncle Petros & Goldbach’s Conjecture,” first-time author Apostolos Doxiadis has put together a stunning synthesis of mathematics and make-believe. In the grand tradition of science novels…
Greek author Doxiadis wrote this novel in 1992 and updated it slightly for the 2000 publication in English. It’s a delight to have it in translation at last because this is a riveting good story about pride, obsession and – gulp – mathematics…
‘Uncle Petros offers many glimpses of the great superreal world of mathematical ideas, a world of eternal truths and of unspeakable beauty.’
‘A compelling portrait of a talented young mathematician.’
“‘It is brilliantly written—a mathematical detective story of great charm—and it certainly succeeds in capturing much of the spirit of mathematical research.’
Anyone letting slip in literary company that they have never heard of Shakespeare or Mozart, will be regarded rather pityingly and undoubtedly viewed as an uncultured person. Anyone announcing that they know little or nothing about mathematics, physics or chemistry need have no fear for their reputation. More than that…
‘Doxiadis invites us into the universe of Number Theory, he gives us a glimpse of what the mathematical profession and community during the first decades of the 20th century was like and introduces us to fascinating persons, such as the mathematicians Hardy, Ramanujan, Turing and Godel. Above all, he introduces us to the subterranean, psychological world of mathematical thought and …continue reading…
Enfin un livre qui parle de science et qui se devore comme un roman policier – un roman policier mathematique. C’est un recit plein de charme et de suspense qu’a ecrit Apostolos Doxiadis, homme de theatre et industriel grec forme aux mathematiques…
“GREAT LOVES are often born of loneliness”, and this, the narrator concludes, is the case with his uncle’s affair with numbers. Petros has spent a lifetime searching for Goldbach’s Conjecture…
At first blush, one could hardly think of a more dry and uninviting premise for a novel. But along comes applied-mathematics-student-turned film-maker, Apostolos Doxiadis, who with Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture has given us a fascinating, captivating, intellectual joy ride…
For those who want to be millionaires but shudder to contemplate facing a smirking Regis Philbin as he asks, “Is that your final answer?” the publishers of “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture,” a novel by Apostolos Doxiadis offer a challenging alternative…
BOY MEETS GIRL, perhaps; girl meets girl or boy, boy; occasionally boy or girl may even find perfect happiness with dog or horse: As a rule, love stories treat relationships among the animate. But “Uncle Petros & Goldbach’s Conjecture” describes a passion wholly of the mind…
Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture is a recent English translation of a 1992 Greek novel. The author — and I’ll say this at the start since, if you’re like me, you’re very reluctant to read a novel about a mathematician written by an author who knows little about mathematics — received a bachelors degree in mathematics at Columbia University and a masters degree in applied mathematics at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris…
It is a matter of some concern over and above the purely literary when a publisher, in whom the present reviewer has to declare an interest, announces that it is prepared to give away a cool $1 million. And all the more so when, in the last financial year, it made a profit of only £256,000, a sum I had thought perfectly respectable until announcement of this damn fool publicity stunt was made…
It is no longer fashionable to boast of innumeracy. Soon mathematicians will be courted at A-list gatherings and encouraged to stun the assembled celebs with their exquisite little problems. This slim novel from a writer previously unknown outside Greece (now translated into 15 languages) offers the non-mathematician of any age…
In a letter to Leonhard Euler, dated 7 June 1742, Christian Goldbach, a not especially eminent mathematician, speculated that every even number greater than 2 was the sum of at least one pair of primes (a prime being an integer divisible solely by itself and 1). Thus 10 = 7+3, 32 = 13+19, 84 = 67+17, ad infinitum. To the great Euler, it probably seemed a trifling puzzle not worth racking his brain over…
One generally doesn’t speak the words “prime numbers” and “seven-figure prizes” in the same breath.
But don’t tell that to the publishers of “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture”, an engaging first novel by Greek author Apostolos Doxiadis. The Story Behind the Math…
One of the most attractive developments of the literature of the Nineties was the rapprochement between the arts and the sciences. A series of humane and graceful texts appeared whose purpose was to convey to an audience with no special scientific or mathematical competence some of the beauty and resonance of those subjects…
Pure maths is so technical that few have dared to use it as vehicle for fiction. Until Apostolos Doxiadis arrives with Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture…
‘I very much enjoyed Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, and read it through compulsively to the end.’
‘Paints a fascinating picture of how a mathematician could fall into a mental trap by devoting his efforts to a too difficult problem.’
‘A mathematical conjecture unsolved for two centuries; a mathematical genius uncle driven mad trying to solve it; an ambiguous relation with a mathematically-minded nephew; and acute human observation all come together in Uncle Petros to make a very funny, tender, charming and, to my mind, irresistible novel.’
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