Eric Wittmershaus – Flakmagazine
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, like Alan P. Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams,” “Uncle Petros” pulls us in with its moving story and simple, fluid explanations of complex mathematical problems.
“One of life’s failures.” That is the casual dismissal Doxiadis’ narrator receives when he asks his father about his reclusive uncle Petros Papachristos, who seems to spend all of his spare time gardening at his home in Ekali, a hamlet on the outskirts of Athens. (The novel is translated from Greek and was published in Greece in 1992.)
Naturally, the narrator becomes curious, deciding to find out for himself the information his father fails to provide. Fortunately for us, he takes his reader along, as he pokes around the reclusive Petros’s house and craftily reroutes and intercepts his uncle’s mail.
Eventually, the detective work pays off. The narrator eventually learns that “one of life’s failures” is actually a mathematician of no small repute, and that Uncle Petros spent virtually all of his mathematical career trying to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture, one of mathematics’ most difficult problems.
The Conjecture, simply stated, holds that any even number greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers. (A prime number is a positive number only divisible by one and itself.)
While Goldbach’s Conjecture has been shown to be true for very large even numbers, no one has ever proven, through mathematical reasoning, that the conjecture holds true for all even numbers.
We follow the narrator through his high school days, into college and beyond, learning of his mathematical struggles, as well as his own ill-fated early attempt to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture. We learn of Uncle Petros’ sad, vain, yet oddly inspiring struggle to settle a problem that has remained unsolved for more than two centuries. More importantly, the reader comes to vicariously share Uncle Petros and the narrator’s close bond, part father-son, part mentor-student, part subject-biographer.
Along the way, Doxiadis, who has a master’s degree in applied mathematics, stunningly conveys the suspense, pressure and paranoia borne of standing at the frontiers of number theory.
Doxiadis’ novel is nearly as much fact as it is fiction. While the narrator and Uncle Petros are fictional, the other mathematicians Doxiadis parades across his stage are not. We meet some of the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th century. G.H. Hardy, John Littlewood and Srinivasa Ramanujan — all contemporaries of Petros Papachristos at the University of Cambridge appear and interact with Uncle Petros much as they might have in real life. And while the events of Uncle Petros’ life are fabricated, we see Littlewood stolen away from his research by the WWII campaign against Germany, as well as Ramanujan dying prematurely at the hands of tuberculosis.
“Uncle Petros” also does an outstanding job of rendering mathematical theories and techniques, like Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Eratosthenes’ Sieve, understandable to any reader willing to spend a couple of seconds pondering a footnote. In a world where fully grown adults use calculators to multiply 12 times 8, this is no small feat.
“Uncle Petros & Goldbach’s Conjecture” is a riveting debut. Part mystery, part biography, part coming-of-age novel and part eulogy, it functions on levels ranging from light, inspirational biography to allusion-packed Greek tragedy. Doxiadis’ debut is a distinctly timeless tale of a distinctly timeless mathematical puzzle.
Disclosure: The reviewer is a former math nerd.
May 25, 2000: Eric Wittmershaus – Flakmagazine