12 June 2008

Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture

It's been a while since I had time to sit down and read a good novel. I still don't have time but I recently managed to 'create' some time to read Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by fine Greek writer Apostolos Doxiadis. It's been sitting on one of my bookshelves for a long long time. I picked it up the other day just on my way to the toilet, hoping to just cast a quick glance through it. But the book turned out to be great fun and 'unputdownable'. The experience of reading it reminded me of the old days when I could simply sit down and read piles of books I liked. Alas, those good times were not destined to return.

The novel centres around Uncle Petros, a math genius, and his nephew, who tries to pry into Uncle Petros's eccentric personality and learn a lot from it. Uncle Petros spends (or rather squanders) all his life trying to find the proof of Goldbach's conjecture that 'every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes'. Needless to say, I'm not good at maths but I really enjoy seeing how a person can be passionate about one thing and put his whole life at stake. Compared to Uncle Petros's dedication, I can't help but realise my own cowardice, afraid to take a big plunge to do what I really like. Perhaps what's even worse is that I don't really know what I like ...

The writer is also a mathematician of his own right and was admitted to Columbia University since he was fifteen years old. It's great to hear from these 'beautiful minds' whose stories don't necessarily involve just passion and success. On the contrary, there are also a series of frustrated attempts and failures along the way. Yet, what distinguishes these men from others is not just how they cope with their heavenly gift but how they cope with their deterioration and downfall since they can't simply retain that gift forever. Some can steer through with dignity while others simply can't acknowledge it at all.

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