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Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture: A Novel of Mathematical Obsession Paperback – February 3, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (February 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582341281
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582341286
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #170,911 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Every family has its black sheep--in ours it was Uncle Petros." The narrator of Apostolos Doxiadis's first novel, Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, is unable to understand the reasons for his uncle's fall from grace. A kindly, gentle recluse devoted only to gardening and chess, Petros Papachristos exhibits no sign of dissolution or indolence: so why is he held in such low esteem? One day, his brother reveals all:
'Your Uncle Petros cast pearls before swine; he took something holy and sacred and great, and shamelessly defiled it!' ... 'His gift, of course!' ... 'The great, unique gift that God had blessed him with, his phenomenal, unprecedented, mathematical talent! The miserable fool wasted it; he squandered it and threw it out with the garbage. Can you imagine it? The ungrateful bastard never did one day's useful work in mathematics. Never! Nothing! Zero!'
Needless to say, such apoplexy only provokes the boy's curiosity, and what he eventually discovers is a story of obsession and frustration, of Uncle Petros's attempts at finding a proof for one of mathematics' great enigmas--Goldbach's Conjecture.

The innumerate may initially find this undramatic material for a novel. Yet Doxiadis offers up a beautifully imagined narrative, which reveals a rarefied world of the intellect that few people will ever enter, in which numbers are entirely animate entities, each possessed of "a distinct personality." Without ever alienating the reader, he demonstrates the enchantments of this art as well as the ambition, envy, and search for glory that permeate its apostles. Balancing the narrator's own awkward move into adulthood with the painful memories of his brilliant relative, Doxiadis shows how seductive the world of numbers can be, and how cruel a mistress. "A mathematician is born, not made," Petros declares--an inheritance that proves both a curse and a gift. --Burhan Tufail --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

Petros Papachristos, born in Athens in 1895, was sent to the University of Berlin after his teachers discovered his enormous talent for mathematics. He earned his doctorate in 1916 and left for England, where he began an intensive collaboration with G. H. Hardy, J. E. Littlewood and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the world's leading number theorists. In 1919 he was appointed professor at the University of Munich. Over the years, he withdrew into almost complete isolation, directing his research to one of the great unsolved problems of his discipline: the Goldbach Conjecture, which states that every even number is the sum of two primes. He lived an uneventful life up to the moment he claimed to have succeeded in his efforts, whereupon he died, leaving a mystery surrounding his proof as perplexing as the one that enshrouds Fermat's Last Theorem.

Petros Papachristos is of course 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--but don't be misled: he implies that a first-tier mathematician either dies early or goes mad, referring to Cantor, Gödel and Uncle Petros. But this is definitely a biased selection. Gauss, Hilbert and lots of others lived to a ripe old age in complete mental health, and so far Andrew Wiles doesn't show the slightest sign of madness. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I can say that I liked it very much.
Athanassios Kondylis
The book is very entertaining while still giving the reader a good history of early 20th century mathematical developments.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and could not put it down for even a moment.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 59 people found the following review helpful By David Harris on April 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Uncle Petros is most definitely an interesting read, but I suspect each reader have a markedly different experience with the book. As a fictional story woven neatly into the real history of mathematics, it does very well.
The most impressive part of the book was its representation of a mathematician's life. Although not a mathematician myself (I'm a physicist), I can see a very truthful portrayal of the struggles (and joys) of a life in mathematical research. The human element has often been overlooked in recent popular science/science literature books.
The only negative comment I have regarding the book is the treatment of mathematical content. If you are looking for a book that will give you some insight into the actual nature of Goldbach's conjecture, look elsewhere. The mathematics itself is never treated beyond describing what the problem is and how to understand a statement of it.
That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, however, there are a great number of references to mathematical knowledge that I imagine are beyond the comprehension of people who have not studied mathematics at a university level. If you don't mind being somewhat perplexed by the occasional sentence, then you won't have a problem. Just don't think that the bits you are missing will illuminate the mathematics of Goldbach's conjecture particularly well.
Unfortunately, the case is worse for Godel's incompleteness theorems. If the ideas discussed whet your appetite, you are best off seeking out other popular science books on the topic as Uncle Petros does not give a very clear idea of its nature.
Overall, however, the story is an interesting one. It is one of the few books available which deals with the nature of being a mathematician and for that it is to be commended.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By George Baloglou on June 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This "anti-heroic" novel is centered around a man's changing attitudes toward the passion of his life: the man happens to be a Greek mathematician with a distinguished -- for a while -- career in early twentieth century Germany; and his passion is no other than an unsolved problem that even elementary school kids could understand (but not necessarily comprehend): is every even number the sum of just two odd numbers none of which is the product of smaller odd numbers? The Greek mathematician, Petros Papachristou, is fictional, but the problem, known as Goldbach's Conjecture, is very real and still (June 2000) unsolved, perhaps even unsolvable.
This last word, "unsolvable", is indeed the novel's keystone: to most people it means "something that themselves, and possibly others as well, cannot solve", but to mathematicians it may also mean "something that cannot be solved" or, in more mathematical language, "something that cannot be decided"; more to the point, a mathematical problem is "undecidable" when its solution is elusive not because of the potential solvers' insufficient talent, effort or knowledge, but rather because of its "inner structure". Wonderfully, the first and most famous example of such an "undecidable" statement comes straight out of plane geometry and the world's second most read book, Euclid's "Elements": is it true for every straight line L and every point P not on L that there exists exactly one straight line that is parallel to L and passes through P at the same time? [If you think that the answer is an obvious "yes", imagine our universe as a sphere and then start thinking what "straight lines" and "parallel lines" on that sphere ought to be...
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Symes on August 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
I am not a mathematician. Indeed, my High School mathematics teachers would probably be a bit surprised to find me reading a novel about mathematics. However, that this novel deals with some of the history of Number Theory in mathematics is just part of what is going on.
'Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture' deals with notions of talent, obsession, failure, and choice. The narrative concerns a man with incredible talent in mathematics who becomes obsessed with finding the solution to one of mathematics great problems. His failure (at least in any recognisable way) to find the solution leads many, especially his family, to question the choices that he made. However, one of his nephews (the narrator) finds his uncle fascinating and learns many things which force him to re-evaluate both his family's opinion of Uncle Petros, and his own choices in life.
In some ways this novel reminded me of 'Sophie's World' by Jostein Gaarder. Where Gaarder's book dealt with the history of philosophy, this one uses the history of Number Theory as it's backdrop. However, if anything the narrative framework for this novel was tighter and more convincing (although the novel itself is relatively short). While I didn't always understand the mathematics of what was going on, that didn't matter for the plot and it has raised some ideas that I will try and read more about in the future. A novel that makes you think about aspects of life AND teaches you some basics about mathematics, I'm glad that I read it.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By George Tsiros on January 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
To those of you who maybe hesitate reading a book by a relatively new Greek author,I say only this: Order now! "Unkle Petros" is a fascinating human story evolving around advanced mathematics, nevertheless accessible even to people like me who only know that 2+2=4. Doxiadis has written one of the true originals of the year 2000, with knowledge, humour, style and true love for his hero. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
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