Jane Shilling – The Times
Living by numbers
by Jane Shilling
One of the most attractive developments of the literature of the Nineties was the rapprochement between the arts and the sciences. A series of humane and graceful texts appeared whose purpose was to convey to an audience with no special scientific or mathematical competence some of the beauty and resonance of those subjects.
To artists it can seem extraordinarily unfair that, while modern scientists, the new alchemists, can appreciate to the full the glories of Shakespeare’s sonnets or the music of Mozart, the innumerate masses are shut out forever from the exquisite arcana of such conundrums as the Rieman Hypothesis, Fermat’s Last Theorem, and Goldbach’s Conjecture.
It is the last of these that plays an important part in the latest novel by Apostolos Doxiadis. He is not just a writer and film-maker, but also a mathematician who was admitted to Columbia University at the age of 15 after he submitted an original paper to the mathematics department there.
Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture sets itself the task of trying to explain what it is like to be a mathematician of prodigious gifts. This Doxiadis does, wisely, by making his narrator a mathematician of no more than competent grasp, whose uncle, the Petros of the title, turns out to be an old man with an extraordinary secret.
Uncle Petros is an embarrassment to his family: “a black sheep, one of life’s failures”, according to his brothers, successful businessmen who have devoted their lives to running the factory left to them by the narrator’s grandfather.
Uncle Petros displays no interest in the factory. He is a reclusive old man who lives alone in a house filled with books and chess periodicals, venturing out only for occasional visits to a local chess club, where his skill is regarded with some awe by regular players.
Intrigued by his father’s violent reaction to any display of interest in Petros, the teenage narrator begins to ask questions. Little by little, he uncovers a remarkable story. Petros’s estrangement from his family, his withdrawal from the world, his eccentricity and secretiveness, all spring from a single cause – an obsession which has haunted him for his entire life – the solution of a mathematical conundrum known as Goldbach’s Conjecture. He has sacrificed his youth, friendship and an illustrious career to this perhaps impossible aim. Yet still, in old age, it torments him.
Inspired by the romantic heroism of Petros’s failed quest, the narrator decides to become a mathematician, receiving no encouragement from his uncle, who sets him a test – which proves to uncover the very proof that Petros has spent his life failing to achieve.
There follows the elegant unfolding of a love affair between a man and an intellectual puzzle. It is an obsession as consuming in its intensity as an operatic grand passion and it ends, as such overwhelming desires do, in death. In his final moments, Petros’s thoughts are only for his beloved Conjecture which, for so long a cherished torment, seems -although there is no proof for this – to have revealed itself to him in his last hours, allowing him in death the peace of which he was deprived in life.
It is a most attractive book – modest, domestic, gracefully and humbly written. For his attempts to reveal to us some of the extraordinary beauties of mathematical thought, Apostolos Doxiadis deserves the gratitude of innumerates everywhere.
April 15, 2000: Jane Shilling – The Times