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Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture: A Novel of Mathematical Obsession Mass Market Paperback – February 3, 2001
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'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 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.
Top Customer Reviews
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...Read more ›
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.Read more ›
'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.
Given that I'm an amateur mathematician myself, and especially given my strong emphasis upon number theory, this novel struck a chord of enthrallment with me.
An example of the folly of human pride, to which we all can easily fall victim, the narrator has Uncle Petros state the following: "However, a mathematician who is just average -- I'm talking about a researcher, of course, not a high-school teacher -- is a living, walking tragedy..."
Such a characterization of a "merely average" mathematician is an arrogant repudiation of the wonderful successes achieved by such average mathematicians -- maybe never discovering any great theorems, or making any substantial contribution to mathematics, yet fulfilling a vital role in human society whose technical world is run largely by mathematical principles, with most of the technical successes being accomplished by more-or-less "average" technicians and mathematicians.
Uncle Petros ended up rather tragically, not because he had too little mathematical ability for a good, creative, and productive mathematical life, but rather because he got his bloated ego attached to an absurd characterization of what it is to be a successful mathematician. The sheer joy of doing mathematics is sufficient to render a life of "average" mathematical achievement worthy of respect and admiration.
The author of this novel, Doxiadis, did a masterful job of giving a hypothetical account of a mathematician of great potential who permitted his ego to run amok with an absurdly high benchmark for mathematical success.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Doxiadis tells a good yarn, rooted in his secure command of the history of mathematics, his obvious affection for its major characters (Euler, Hardy/Littlewood/Ramanujan, Turing... Read morePublished 1 month ago by Nicholas Wheeler
I red this excellent book in Spanish,I found it highly enjoyable and well paced,It will make a good reading for those who love Science and Knowledge in general!Published 1 month ago by Ramon Mirabal
This story is told so perfectly that it taught me for the first time what an art telling a story really is. Read morePublished 10 months ago by Fstrohm
This story is absolutely delightful. Fast paced, intriguing, full of genuine forgiveness for our human flaws. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Miranda East