Maths mad

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's conjecture

Apostolos Doxiadis <em>Faber, 209pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 057

In this age of indeterminacy, there has been a growing trend for books that recall the unravelling of a long-established enigma. Simon Singh's bestselling account of Fermat's Last Theorem is one example; the extraordinarily successful Longitude by Dava Sobel is another. The latest addition to this genre of conundrums concerns a hypothesis put forward by the mathematician Christian Goldbach in 1742. He proposed that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes, and Apostolos Doxiadis's novel follows one man's fanatical attempts to prove Goldbach's Conjecture.

It was originally published in Greek eight years ago, and Doxiadis has also written the English version. Apart from an excess of adjectives, his prose is clear, succinct and reaching for the certitude of a mathematical equation. Indeed, one of the main aims of the novel is to depict mathematics as both an empirical and an aesthetic-philosophical pursuit, given that its "combination of external simplicity and notorious difficulty pointed of necessity to a profound truth".

The narrator of the novel, an unnamed middle-aged Greek, is looking back at his adolescence. Intrigued by numbers and by the strange lifestyle of one of his relatives, he sets out to "seek an answer to the mystery of Uncle Petros". The first section of the book expounds his initial discoveries: his uncle's mathematical education in Germany, his single-minded devotion to Goldbach's Conjecture and how he was ostracised by his family because of it. Inspired by his uncle's stoical endeavours, the young nephew resolves to become a mathematician himself, much to his father's annoyance, and the story plays off his own efforts in the discipline against the increasing eccentricity of his uncle.

There is much mathematical detail, including some fairly hefty footnotes, but this seldom upsets the narrative. As well as adding essentials for those who want to follow the maths, these meditations form another register, and there is a kind of poetry in all the names and theories: Universal Turing Machine, Von Neumann Automata, Russell's Paradox, Boolean Algebra.

Yet the theory never cancels out the human dimension to this very Greek drama of asceticism, pride and self-destruction. When Uncle Petros recounts his life story to his nephew, he reveals a youthful love affair of such "tortuous happiness" that from the day it ended, he promised to apply himself solely to mathematics. Although this subscribes to the notion of an unloved and unloveable genius, Doxiadis's writing has a pace and composure ensuring that sentimentality is held in balance. Petros may well be the archetypal mad professor, but that doesn't make him any less convincing.

Doxiadis is good on the competitiveness of academia - especially regarding the pressure to publish, the paranoia and isolation of many scholars, and the dangers of wandering too far down the windowless corridors of specialisation. To his cost, Uncle Petros experiences all three. More than that, they precipitate his descent towards madness, and he begins to dream of integers as characters.

However, like all fine tragedies, there is wisdom here as well as woe. At one point, Uncle Petros says to his nephew: "You know that popular saying that the three conditions impossible to conceal are a cough, wealth and being in love? Well, to me there is a fourth: mathematical gift." And this intriguing novel will tell you all you need to know about that, too.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor