Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture

October 9, 2014
Apostolos Doxiadis

This is a bit outside of what I usually read, and I find Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture rather hard to categorize. Math fiction?

It's essentially an intellectual mystery thriller, centered around the life and exploits of the eponymous Uncle Petros Papachristos (the nameless narrator is, quelle surprise, Petros' nephew). A gentle, elderly recluse who lives a simple life, spending his time playing chess and tending to his garden, Petros is utterly despised by his two younger brothers. His nephew resolves to figure out why the kindly Petros has become the family black sheep, and discovers that in his youth, Petros was a mathematical genius of international renown, who eventually ended up as an unemployed and reputedly insane loner, living in obscurity in an Athens suburb.

The mystery of the story is Goldbach's Conjecture, and the main focus is the agony and ecstasy of Petros, as he launches on a lifelong, all-consuming, obsessive quest to prove it. Given that it's still one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics, it's not exactly a spoiler to reveal that Petros' story doesn't exactly end in glory and triumph. The book is neatly divided into three parts: The first is primarily focused with the narrator's discovery of Petros' past (and his own entry into mathematics), the second is a third-person extended biographical tale about Petros' life, and the third is primarily concerned with Petros' old age (in the early 1970s, given the references to the Greek military junta), and the development of his complex relationship with his nephew.

Arguably, the entire book is hinged on another complex relationship of Petros': That between him and Goldbach's Conjecture itself. We follow how he initially takes on the task of solving it in the hopes of proving his worth to his first love interest. We follow his obsession, his wonderful intermediate discoveries, his frustrations, his seclusion and alienation from his colleagues. We see him succumb to stress, pay a terrible (and predictable, to anybody who's ever worked in academic research) price for his secretive tendencies. Ultimately, it's a story about obsession, and Petros is as much its hero as he is its victim (and, at certain points, arguably a villain). Although the ending of the story is predictable, it's still fantastically well-executed, and leaves an important point (which I will refrain from spoiling) open.

Most of the secondary characters — in fact, nearly all characters who aren't members of the Papachristos family — are famous mathematicians, and they're woven into the tale in a manner that makes it absolutely plausible that none of them would have ever mentioned Petros in their work. Petros works alongside people like Hardy, Littlewood and Ramanujan, simultaneously collaborating with them while fervently trying to keep his work on the Conjecture to himself, lest someone else manages to prove it before him. Kurt Gödel plays a brief but pivotal role, and Alan Turing even appears in a cameo.

Rather frighteningly for me, I can recognize a bit of myself in Petros. I kept being reminded of my own state of mind when I abandoned academic computer science. Case in point: At the age of 28, I felt old.

I have one minor nit to pick with the book, and it specifically involves Turing. The narrator invokes the archetypical mad mathematician trope, speculating that great mathematicians go insane because the human mind cannot cope with coming too close to perfect Truth. Turing is explicitly mentioned, but Turing didn't kill himself from having gazed too long into the abyss. Turing killed himself because he lived in a society which pathologized and criminalized his sexuality. He was chemically castrated and put in house arrest, and committed suicide during the resulting depression. Math didn't kill Turing, homophobia did.

The book is highly accessible even to people with no mathematics background — in fact, one early subplot will probably provide considerably more suspense for people who don't know number theory. One part of the Gödel subplot initially had me calling bullshit — but the author was delightfully ahead of me, and a character explicitly addressed my complaint a few pages later.

I found it an absolute page turner. I read the first 20 pages before going to sleep one evening, and the next day I got so engrossed in it on the bus that I ended up going to a local coffee house, where I inhaled the rest of the book in a single, intensive sitting. It's a relatively brief read, and it's one of the best books I've read this year.

Highly, highly recommended. I borrowed it from my preciousssss, and I'm happy I did.

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