Lawrence Goldstone – Miami Herald Tribune
Theory + mathematician = obsession
Uncle Petros spins a fascinating tale of numbers and passion
by Lawrence Goldstone
In 1742, Christian Goldbach, former tutor to Czar Peter II, wrote a letter to fellow mathematician Leonhard Euler in which he proposed the following: Every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes, a prime being a number that can only be divided by 1 and itself. So, 3+1=4, 5+1=6, 3+7=10, 11+47=58, 23+97=120, etc. Sounds simple, right? Something any moderately talented high school nerd could doodle away in study hall.
Not so. That proposition, dubbed Goldbach’s Conjecture, remains unproved and has, in fact, evolved into one of the two great remaining unsolved problems of number theory. (There used to be three, but the most famous, Fermat’s Last Theorem, was proved a couple of years ago.)
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.
Discussions of the plot (there’s just the hint of one) cannot possibly do this book justice, but here goes: Uncle Petros is Petros Papachristos, a former mathematics prodigy who, as a brash youngster, had set himself the task of proving Goldbach’s Conjecture. Petros, disarmed by the seeming simplicity of the task, toiled in vain, and avocation soon turned into near-psychotic obsession. Few of his peers noticed, since near-psychotic obsessions are not uncommon in higher mathematics. Then, in 1932, Kurt Gödel proved his famous indecipherability theorem that states that it is impossible in advance to know whether or not a true statement actually can be proved. Petros, now faced with the fact that even if Goldbach’s Conjecture were true, he might never be able to demonstrate it, abruptly quit mathematics to take up life as a reclusive curmudgeon, playing chess with the locals and living off his share of the income from the family business.
Now near 80, Petros has developed a grudging tolerance for his nephew, the novel’s narrator. The nephew, to his uncle’s extreme disdain, took up mathematics, then abandoned it when he realized he lacked the prodigious talent necessary to make a mark in a field that is essentially pure thought. Then the nephew turns the tables — he demeans Petros, accuses him, reawakens the old man’s ghosts. (The ghosts often take the form of terrifying dreams in which even numbers become twins — two freckled, dark-eyed, beautiful girls, who are always turning away, their eyes brimming with tears. Even numbers cannot be primes, of course, since all are divisible by 2.) The challenge now issued and accepted, Uncle Petros, once again possessed by Goldbach and the twins, begins laying out geometric patterns of lima beans in the center of his floor. He works in secret, speaks to no one.
Will Goldbach’s Conjecture be proved after all? In the end . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the fun.
Much of the book consists of Petros’ recounting of his life story. As he spins his tale, real mathematicians (Gödel, Alan Turing, G.H. Hardy) come and go, as do real problems in number theory. The reader gets a rare peek into the minds of those who embrace higher mathematics (which is as related to what most of us learn in school as we are to the amoeba) and the passion and monomaniacal commitment with which they embrace their calling.
“Mathematicians,” Petros says, “find the same enjoyment in their studies that chess players find in chess. In fact, the psychological make-up of the true mathematician is closer to that of the poet or the musician . . . he is the polar opposite of the practical man, the engineer, the politician, or the . . .” — he paused for a moment seeking something even more abhorred in his scale of values – “the businessman.”
The writing is breezy and offhand, which allows even the most dense material to settle gently, and Doxiadis has made his story even more accessible by opting to have Uncle Petros select a discipline that deals only in integers. There are no fractions, complicated formulas, serpentine equations or any other hieroglyphics — just good old-fashioned, recognizable, everyday whole numbers. But seeing what number theorists do with them . . . that alone makes reading this very engaging novel worthwhile.
Lawrence Goldstone, author with his wife, Nancy, of Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore, lives in Westport, Conn.
April 16, 2000: Lawrence Goldstone – Miami Herald Tribune