*Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture*Doxiadis pulls it off.

The narrator discovers as a child that his reclusive "black sheep" uncle Petros was once a noted mathematician, who tried and failed to prove the Goldbach Conjecture. This inspires him to study mathematics himself, but what he learns doing that gives him a different understanding of his uncle. In what is effectively a historical novella, Petros then recounts his life story, which features among others the mathematicians Hardy, Littlewood, Ramanujan and GĂ¶del. And after we return to the present there are further twists and turns, in what is effectively a psychological detective story.

There's no assumption of mathematical background in *Uncle Petros*
— it is enough to be able to understand the Goldbach Conjecture,
that "every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes".
But Doxiadis knows the domain and is accurate not just with the
mathematics he references but with the psychology of mathematical
study and research and the institutional workings of the research
world. He perhaps stretches a few small things in the service
of his plot — could anyone really complete most of a mathematics
degree without having learned about the Incompleteness Theorem? —
and leans towards a slightly romanticised, essentialist view of
mathematical aptitude, but those are minor quibbles.

I'm not sure this would work for someone without any mathematical
background at all, but I think it probably would, with more of
the attraction coming from novelty and less from familiarity.
*Uncle Petros* is also an engaging story, with two compelling
central characters and a nicely sketched background — an extended
Greek family, life as a university student in the United States,
social chess-playing.

November 2020

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