Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (Greece)

Leonard Euler
Leonard Euler, who received a letter from Herr Goldbach

by Apostolos Doxiadis

I have always been a literate person, but I’m not very numerate. Like the Uncle Petros of this novel, I invented personalities for numbers as a small child. Not because I loved them with a passion, but because I hated them with one. Mathematicians, it seems, are born and not made. Here is Petros reveling in his beloved numbers:

“65 appeared for some reason as a City gentleman, with bowler hat and rolled umbrella, in constant companionship with one of his prime divisors, 13, a goblin-like creature, supple and lightning-quick. 333 was a fat slob, stealing bites of food from the mouths of its siblings 222 and 111, and 8191, a number known as a ‘Mersine Prime’ invariably wore the attire of a French gamin (a pretty, slender person), complete down to the Gauloise cigarette hanging from his lips…”

The young Greek narrator of this novel has a romantic idea of his Uncle Petros as a great mathematician and black sheep of the family, in contrast to his father and boring uncle, who are mere businessmen. The novel is surprisingly readable, dealing as it does with two math men: One obsessed with solving the riddle of Goldbach’s Conjecture and one obsessed with solving the riddle of his Uncle Petros. Neither experience is entirely satisfactory.

What the Heck is Goldbach’s Conjecture?

Christian Goldbach
Christian Goldbach

book coverWatchers of The Big Bang Theory may be familiar with Fermat’s Last Theorem. (In fact I swear I could hear Sheldon muttering some of the dialogue attributed to the socially awkward genius Uncle Petros in this book.) Goldbach’s Conjecture is another famous, unsolved mathematical puzzle in the area of Number Theory. The back of this book offers ONE MILLION DOLLARS to anyone who can prove Goldbach’s Conjecture, for a limited few years. The prize was never awarded.

I’ve never read a novel with a million dollar reward attached before. Would have made me pay a lot more attention in geometry class in high school, let me tell you. Instead I sat in the back, trying to hide my open Pat McManus book under my desk. I was always good at foreign languages, but I flunked math because I didn’t understand (or didn’t care) that it too has a special language all its own.

Goldbach’s Conjecture says that every even integer (a whole number that isn’t a fraction) greater than 2 can be written as the sum of two prime numbers (by adding 2 numbers together that can only be divided by themselves and 1). It was an idea of Herr Christian Goldbach’s, in a letter to his friend Leonard Euler around 1742.

ancient greek mathHm. Greek to me. I need an  example:

  • ancient greek mathThe even whole number 6, which is greater than 2 = the prime number 3 + the prime number 3.

map of greeceYou can imagine that as I was reading the book, and they were trying to prove this idea, that I said wow, I’ll bet computers would be useful. Imagine doing all of this by hand. But men did. Then they tried computers. They still can’t prove it and I’m not sure why. I’m also not sure why it matters. I mean, it seems a bit less important than curing cancer.

Why Bother?

Well, for Uncle Petros, originally to impress a girl. Then for research funding, prestige in the scientific community, and personal and national glory. Oh, and money too. And intellectual satisfaction. And, I suspect, to give himself a chance not to have to socialize with people.

As the “most favored of nephews” changes his views on Uncle Petros from sad old failure to brilliant mathematician to cruel hoaxster to mysterious fraud and back again, we get to romp through a curious world where ideas seem to be more important than relationships, although it is this fallacy that will turn out to get Petros in the end.

I liked that the book was written so that I could understand what the math was talking about, even if I did not understand the language of the equations. Words, always words. Not those words.

Rating: 5 lima beans arranged to show a parallelogram of a Goldbach’s equation. Very, very good.







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