Friday, 14 December 2012

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture


'Which is the most difficult problem in mathematics, Professor?' he asked Caratheodory at their next meeting, trying to feign mere academic curiosity.

'I'll give you the three main contenders,' the sage replied after a moment's hesitation. 'The Riemann Hypothesis, Fermat's Last Theorem and, last but not least, Goldbach's Conjecture, the proof of the observation about every even number being the sum of two primes - one of the great unsolved problems of Number Theory.'

Although by no means yet a firm decision, the first seed of the dream that some day he would prove the Conjecture was apparently planted in his heart by this short exchange...Its formulation had attracted him from the very first. The combination of external simplicity and notorious difficulty pointed of necessity to a profound truth.'

Goldbach proposed his Conjecture back in 1742 and it has exercised mathematicians ever since. Petros makes the problem his life's work. In the course of his mathematical quest, he rubs shoulders with some of the greatest minds of his time - Godel, Hardy, Littlewood and Alan Turing. The story is narrated by his nephew, curious to know why the rest of his family deems his uncle to be such an abject failure. 
Yes, this is a book about maths but it’s also about the goals we set ourselves in life, about how high we aim and how we respond to setbacks and failure.  It’s also about the nature of obsession and the perils of staking a lifetime's work on a single goal.  The author, himself a mathematician, gives the lay reader an insight into the great mathematical minds, highlighting the link between mathematical genius and mental instability. He points to the great mathematicians who’ve committed suicide and those who’ve finished their days as broken men.
'Sammy expounded his theory: 'I think Godel's insanity - for unquestionably he is in a certain sense insane - is the price he paid for coming too close to Truth in its absolute form. In some poem it says that "people cannot bear very much reality", or something like that. Think of the biblical Tree of Knowledge or the Prometheus of your mythology. People like him have surpassed the common measure; they've come to know more than is necessary to man, and for this hubris they have to pay.'
The young narrator, initially drawn to maths himself, ultimately decides it’s not a route he’s prepared to take.
There's very little in the way of characterisation or scene-setting, but this is a compelling and convincing story. Even as a non-mathematician I could appreciate the devastating blow dealt by Petros' encounter with Godel. We see flashes of genius and descent into madness. The end of the novel is particularly dramatic as the nephew finally succeeds in reawakening his uncle’s interest, with unintended consequences.

When the book was published in 2000, the publishers offered a $1million prize to anyone who proved the Conjecture within two years of publication. The prize went unclaimed.

1 comment:

  1. This looks like another one for my Xmas or birthday list. Thanks Karen!

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