Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture

Apostolos Doxiadis

translated from the Greek
Faber and Faber 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020 https://dannyreviews.com/
A novel not just about a mathematician but centering mathematical research in its plot? The idea seems preposterous, but in 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 Gödel. 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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Related reviews:
- Apostolos Doxiadis - Circles Disturbed: The Interplay of Mathematics and Narrative
- more fiction
- more historical fiction
- books about popular mathematics
%T Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture
%A Doxiadis, Apostolos
%M Greek
%I Faber and Faber
%D 2000 [1992]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 9780571205110
%P 209pp