Book 877 Apostolos Doxiadis – Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture

When I was at school I hated Maths (yes over here we say it in the plural) with a passion. When I’m confronted with a ton of numbers my mind just refuses to work. The funny thing is when I’m reading these mathematical/scientific novels all the concepts become clear. This was the case of Uncle Petros…

On the whole it’s a very simple story. The  narrator is a good mathematician but finds out that his mysterious Uncle Petros is a professor in the subject. On further investigation he has found out that Uncle Petros has not published a single paper or theory since the mid 30’s and so he is curious to why his uncle has been inactive.

Through a long confession the narrator discovers that Uncle Petros  had fallen in love with a girl, and in order to impress her, decided to solve Goldbach’s Conjecture ( An even number greater than two is always the sum of two primes). One of the most difficult problems to prove.

Needless to say that this becomes Petros’ obsession for 20 years and he turns into a madman. When he realises that the conjecture cannot be rejected he accepts his fate (and the mighty repercussions) and settles down playing chess.

The narrator doesn’t believe that all theories should be accepted and eggs Uncle Petros to revive the theory, which he does and returns to his madman status.  Eventually Uncle Petros makes a breakthrough but at a cost.

Doxiadis does an excellent job in creating a highly readable and fun book. All theories are explained clearly so that anyone can understand them and although it promotes the ‘mathematician as insane genius’ stereotype it done with a lot of exuberance and charm.  If there is a film that complements this book then I suggest Darren Aronofsky’s 1999 film ‘Pi’ which shares a lot of the same themes here.