Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis

What stayed with me, long after I had read A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit  by Alan Lightman, was the tone of regret, that powerful, haunting emotion. He writes of his own regrets in discovering in his thirties that his chosen life was over. He was a physicist, he no longer had any expectation of doing anything that mattered.

When I directed an astrophysics conference one summer and realised that most of the exciting research was being reported by ambitious young people in their midtwenties, waving their calculations and ideas in the air and scarcely slowing down to acknowledge their predecessors, I would have instantly traded my position for theirs….None of my fragile childhood dreams, my parents’ ambitious encouragement, my education at all the best schools, prepared me for this early seniority, this stiffening at age thirty-five.

and of maths:

About four o’clock, I went down to tea. Every afternoon, the mathematicians in Fine gather on the second floor for tea. At the back of the room loomed a large photograph, a conference of great mathematicians from the 1940s. They were lined up in rows, staring off into space.

One might think that, living in their beautiful worlds of sublime isolation and perfection, mathematicians would be the happiest of all people. However, many don’t seem at peace with their chosen profession. Mathematicians are ruthlessly self-critical. In most professions, it is possible to tell yourself and others that your accomplishments are significant, whether they are or are not. Not so in mathematics. In the community of mathematicians, there is a disturbing consensus on what is important, and the standards are painfully high. ‘Mathematicians are more aware of the failures than any other professionals,’ says Professor Gian-Carlo Rota of MIT. Of his own work, Rota says that only one or two moments have brought him any pleasure. Looking back on his long career, Hermann Weyl…told a colleague that he considered his life a failure. Near the tearoom of Fine, I ran into Simon Kochen, the past chairman of the Princeton mathematics department. Kochen, a trim and articulate man, leaned in a doorway and said that ‘the moments of joy in mathematics are few and far between. Most of maths is pure frustration. Results, when you finally get them, are obvious.’ (Isn’t that the goal of a good proof, anyway, to reduce the proposition to a near tautology?) Many mathematicians keep most of their calculations permanently in file drawers, having decided that their results are not worth publishing.

Apostolos Doxiadis takes this strange world and creates a story soundly based in fact, but a most splendid piece of fiction nonetheless. It’s a thriller and a tragedy and frankly I rather think that I held it up in front of my eyes while shovelling food down my gullet from time to time. That unputdownable.

The author is absolutely qualified for the task, having been a mathematical prodigy but whose first love was writing. He not only translated it from the original Greek, but significantly rewrote it in the process. So, I think even the most sniffy individuals on the subject of translation could let their guard down for this one.

I’m surprised more of my GR friends haven’t read it. An unhesitating five stars.


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