Apr 22, 09
Read in June, 2008
A beautiful, compelling, and tragic story of mathematical obsession. As the story starts, Uncle Petros, once a promising young mathematician, has wasted his intellectual gifts, amounted to very little professionally, and his family holds him in contempt but takes care of him. As his nephew tries to discover what happened from him, Uncle Petros reveals his story of how his brilliant start was eclipsed by his all-consuming obsession to crack Goldbach's conjecture. Along the way he crosses paths with many of the famous mathematical personalities of the early 20th centiry.
I thought the novel was remarkably accurate in conveying the passion, frustrations, and angst of pursuing mathematical research. Basically, only the first one to get a correct proof published gets the glory, even if someone else was really close, or even cracked it first but didn't manage to tell anyone. The paranoia of having your work "scooped" is omnipresent. The other omnipresent fear is that of wasting the best years of your life, or perhaps one should say the most potent CPU cycles of your brain, on a dead end; a commonly held aphorism is that a mathematician's best work is done before the age of thirty. This fear of losing one's edge can be so overwhelming that some mathematicians have committed suicide when they felt that their powers had peaked (the tragic case of Taniyama, whose conjecture with Shimura was one of the key ideas in the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, being the first to come to mind).
While I thought Uncle Petros' fall from grace was a rather exaggerated reaction, given that the entire mathematical community had to deal with the exact same problem, it is entirely believable that someone of his brilliance and passion could have experienced the kind of visceral, distraught flameout that he displayed at the thought that his work might be inevitably doomed to failure.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read a passionate depiction of the emotions of mathematical inquiry.