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Insight into a mathematician’s mental process

Insight into a mathematician’s mental process

Required reading

Who: Frank Thuijsman, Mathematician at Knowledge Engineering

Book: Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s conjecture, Apostolos Doxiadis

Target group: students of mathematics, knowledge engineering, and econometrics

“The first-person narrator is a boy living in Greece who wants to get to know his uncle Petros better. The latter is the black sheep of the family; he plays a little chess, does some gardening and relies on his brothers for his upkeep. Uncle Petros is a mathematician and the boy becomes fascinated by his books and formulas. They make a deal: if the boy can solve a mathematic problem by the end of the summer, he will be allowed to study mathematics. If he fails, he must promise to never do so.”

Thuijsman grins. “Actually, it is an improper proposition. The riddle that he gave him was ‘Goldbach’s conjecture’, a mathematical problem that has astounded people for hundreds of years, but so far nobody has been able to solve. When the boy discovers this, he confronts his uncle, who then tells him his life story.”

Goldbach’s conjecture is very simple on paper, says Thuijsman. “The conjecture is that every even number larger than two is the sum of two primes. The question is how to prove this?” Uncle Petros has been trying to do this his whole life. “The book provides an insight into the mental process of a mathematician. It is about an internal search. Looking for structures, for their beauty and the loneliness that may be inherent to this. His brothers understand nothing of what he does. That is what makes this book also fun for friends of mathematicians, as it provides a good idea of what may possess a mathematician.”

Although the book contains mathematical problems, it is not difficult to read. “Doxiadis uses original ways to explain things. It is quite palatable and exciting too. There are a number of funny twists. For example, when the boy asks Petros why he made the proposal and had him promise not to go and study mathematics. Petros says: ‘Firstly, if you really want to study mathematics, you wouldn’t have asked for my permission. Secondly, when you couldn’t solve the problem, you didn’t ask me what the answer was’.”

 

In this column lecturers recommend a novel that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do

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