Polly Shulman – Newsday
by Polly Shulman
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. The novel’s central relationship, as ecstatic and tortured as any meeting of star-crossed lovers, begins when a boy meets a very difficult mathematical problem.
Ever since earliest childhood, the narrator of Apostolos Doxiadis’ novel has been puzzled by his family’s “contemptuous dismissal” of his father’s oldest brother. To the boy, Uncle Petros seems above reproach. He lives quietly in a “sylvan hamlet” not far from Athens, leaving his younger brothers to run the family business. Tactful, considerate and abstemious, unlike the portly, bibulous materialists in his family, he seems not to deserve their scorn. When the narrator asks about Uncle Petros, his father will say only that he is “one of life’s failures.” But why? The narrator can find no clues in what he observes of his uncle’s life: his devotion to chess, his library of technical books in German.
Illumination arrives through an accident. A man from the Hellenic Mathematical Society calls the narrator’s house looking for professor Petros Papachristos.
Far from being a nobody, his nephew learns, Uncle Petros has held the rank of professor of analysis at one of Europe’s greatest universities. Confronting his father, he hears Petros’ secret: ” ‘Your uncle, my son, committed the greatest of sins . . . he took something holy and sacred and great, and shamelessly defiled it.’ ” The squandered gift, explains papa Papachristos, was his mathematical talent. ” ‘The ungrateful bastard never did one day’s useful work in mathematics. Never! Nothing! Zero!’ ” ‘But why?’ I asked.
” ‘Oh, because his Illustrious Excellence was engaged with “Goldbach’s Conjecture.” ‘ ” To Petros’ brothers, a life spent vainly pursuing one of the most difficult problems in mathematics – “a riddle of some sort, something of no interest to anyone except a handful of idlers playing intellectual games,” as Petros’ brother describes it – is a sinfully wasted life. But to the narrator it’s the ultimate in romance. Taking his uncle as his hero, he resolves to follow his example. From there, the book reaches into the past to unveil Uncle Petros’ mathematical development as well as the narrator’s own. Compact and gripping, event follows event like lines in a proof. As in math, pieces reveal new meanings when inspected from a different angle.
The first hint of the corrosive effects of Uncle Petros’ obsession comes when his teenaged nephew confides in him his newfound ambition. Not wanting to see the boy following a course that will lead to failure and unhappiness, Uncle Petros offers to exchange a problem for a promise. The promise: that the narrator will give up mathematics if it turns out he’s not supremely gifted – and if he can’t solve the problem in three months, Uncle Petros will take that as evidence of an insufficient gift. The problem: Prove that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes.
The narrator spends a terrible summer working on the problem, then admits defeat. He honors his pledge, declaring a major in economics at an Ivy League university. Then another accident leads to another fateful revelation. In his junior year he’s assigned a 17-year-old prodigy, Sammy Epstein, as a roommate.
The narrator casually asks Sammy to prove that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes.
“He burst out laughing. If I could prove that, man, I wouldn’t be here eating with you; I’d be a professor already. Maybe I’d even have my Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize of Mathematics!’ Even as he was speaking, in a flash of revelation, I guessed the awful truth,” which readers may already have guessed themselves.
The statement is nothing less than Goldbach’s Conjecture.
Is Uncle Petros a sadist, as Sammy believes? With his support, the furious narrator reclaims his heritage, switching his major to math. Yet eventually, as he learns more about Petros’ life, he arrives at a better understanding of the haunted bitterness his uncle hopes to spare him.
Petros’ journey from extraordinary student to hopeless might-have-been took him to Cambridge, England, the center of early 20th-Century math. There he collaborated with urbane English number theorists G.H. Hardy and J. E.
Littlewood, as well as Srinivasa Ramanujan, a legendary self-taught genius from India (all three historical figures). Ramanujan’s melancholy story echoes the novel’s tone of bottomless longing. The Indian mathematician, Petros tells his nephew, had gifts as great as or greater than those of Archimedes, Newton and Gauss. However, because he had no formal training during his formative years, he could never fulfill more than a tiny fraction of his potential. He died young, of now-curable lung trouble brought on by the English climate.
Working with these three mathematical greats, Petros finds himself drawn to Goldbach’s Conjecture and contracts deadly hubris. Hoping to keep the glory of proving it all to himself, he becomes furtive and obsessed. When mathematicians discuss their work, colleagues can head one another off from blind alleys, find and correct one another’s errors, cross-fertilize ideas. But Petros, afraid of giving another mathematician a vital clue that will allow him to reach the solution first, isolates himself from his peers.
Young Alan Turing brings upsetting tidings to Petros, who’s already on the edge. (Another tragic historical figure, Turing invented theoretical computer science before he committed suicide.) He tells Petros about deep mathematical findings by logician Kurt Gödel. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem casts doubt not only on the truth of Goldbach’s Conjecture – Ramanujan, renowned for his uncanny intuition, had a hunch that the conjecture might not hold true for some very large numbers – but on the possibility of proving it even if it is true.
Doxiadis’ “novel of mathematical obsession,” as the subtitle calls it, is the most dramatic book I’ve read all year, with ambition, betrayal and greedy self-sacrifice to rival anything you’d find in an opera. (It’s also a lovely object, with thick, deckle-edged paper and a ribbon to keep your place, though the awkward translation from Greek requires some patience.) I read it in one sitting, late into the night. The story rang bells for me – I fell for the pure, intellectual patterns of mathematics when I was a teenager, majored in math in college, but found to my sorrow that my love of the subject far outstripped my talent. In his epigraph, Doxiadis quotes the great British mathematician Hardy : “Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.” Anyone who has longed for such immortality will find this novel painfully compelling, as I did; anyone who has wondered what drives a mathematician can read it and find out.
April 30, 2000: Polly Shulman – Newsday