Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (O Theios Petros kai i Eikasia tou Goldbach)
Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…
Superficially, that passage from The Sheltering Sky has absolutely nothing to do with my discovery of a relatively obscure novel by Apostolos Doxiadis (can a bestselling novel ever be described as ‘obscure’?), but shouldn’t literature be all about serendipitous connections? ‘How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?’ belongs to the same depressing, ever-so-slightly-morbid category as questions such as ‘How many more books will you read?’ ‘It all seems limitless’, but the number must be in the low thousands, leaving many thousands more forever unread. A mathematician as talented as Doxiadis (who began his degree at a precocious 15) could probably have a fair crack at working out the probability of me picking up Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture (a book explicitly concerned with limits, time, mortality) at some point in my life. My own best guess is ‘pretty low’.
Low probability or not, I picked the book up, read it in two or three sittings and realised that I’d been lucky enough to find one of those comparatively rare novels that shifts your perception of the world by a few crucial degrees (I felt similarly after finishing The Sheltering Sky). It begins like this:
Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.
The epigraph is drawn from G.H. Hardy‘s A Mathematician’s Apology, and is deeply disturbing for anyone who fancies themselves as a writer. ‘Languages die’, and therefore literature dies with them. Some works cling to life longer than others -Aechylus is still going, whereas this blog already looks moribund -but no language has the neat universality of a mathematical formula. Goldbach’s conjecture can be understood by mathematicians in every country; this piece of writing can only be understood by English speakers. Language is hemmed in by limits.
Uncle Petros is introduced as the ‘black sheep’ of the narrator’s family, ‘one of life’s failures.’ A prodigiously gifted (fictional) mathematician, he was accepted into the influential (non-fictional) Hardy-Littlewood–Ramanujan circle as a student, but only ever published two articles and eventually lapsed into obscurity. The narrator discovers that Uncle Petros withdrew from the world to focus his energy on solving Goldbach’s conjecture -finding a proof that ‘every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes.’
John Nash, a Nobel Economics Laureate, is quoted on the dust jacket as saying Uncle Petros ‘paints a fascinating picture of how a mathematician could fall into a mental trap by devoting his efforts to a too difficult problem’. Uncle Petros does fall into a mental trap, living out his life as a virtual recluse, but Doxiadis stops short (as all good authors should) of presenting a didactic portrait of genius as failure. Musing on the fates of some of the great mathematicians of the last century, the narrator notes that:
‘Hardy and Ramanujan had attempted suicide (Hardy twice) and Turing had succeeded in taking his own life. Gödel‘s sorry state I’ve already mentioned. Adding Uncle Petros to the list made the statistics even grimmer… a sad recluse, with no social life, no friends, no aspirations, killing his time with chess problems.’
Doxiadis seems to favour the idea that the genius is separated from the average person by an almost unfathomable chasm (‘Mathematicus nascitur, non fit’ is something of a personal motto for Uncle Petros), but the ambiguous final chapter suggests that a measure of immortality may result from that separation. Shortly before he dies, Uncle Petros comes close to, or perhaps even succeeds in, discovering a proof of the conjecture -a proof that would write his name in history. Would that place in the annals of mathematics, that ‘immortality’, be sufficient reward for a life as ‘a sad recluse’? The choice is left to the reader.