18/09/2003

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (by Apostolos Doxiadis)

Apostolos Doxiadis is apparently a Greek Australian; he's also a novelist with an fascination for mathematics and number theory. I had never heard of him, until a friend of a friend, knowing my own interest in both fiction and maths, lent me this book.

'Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture' is very different from the kind of book I usually read. The aged Uncle Petros lives alone, and is considered to be a failure by most of his family. However, his nephew is intrigued by this elderly eccentric, and determines to find out more.

He discovers that his uncle is brilliant at chess, and that he was once a great professor of number theory. He tried unsuccessfully for many years to solve Goldbach's conjecture - that all even numbers above two can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers.

The nephew forces his uncle out of his lethargy, after being put off maths himself by his uncle, and they spend a lot of time talking about the theory.

I didn't really find the book all that interesting. It's claimed to be a brilliant way of making mathematics accessible to the ordinary person. I didn't really find this to be the case. Some of what was discussed was very basic (to me), and some was really too complex for me to follow easily. I suppose the book did present mathematicians as ordinary people, but that was hardly any surprise to me.

I found the conclusion to the book anti-climactic and rather depressing, effectively putting me off ever reading it again. Still, it's very popular in some circles, and I thought it was well-written even if the subject matter is slightly bizarre.

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