***The Wild Numbers
by Philibert Schogt
Reviewed July 21, 2004.
Plume Books (Penguin Putnam), New York, 2000. First published in
Amsterdam in 1999. 159 pages.
Mathematician Isaac Swift is thirty-five years old and still hasn’t produced
a significant result, or been published in Number
magazine, like his
arrogant colleague, Larry Oberdorfer. His social life is miserable,
and he’s discouraged about everything. He even has to help babysit
Mr. Vale, a crazy former high school teacher who’s taking classes at the university
and believes he has proved the Wild Number Theorem.
The Wild Number Theorem is a (fictional) famous unsolved problem that
mathematicians have been striving to solve for generations. Then Isaac
gets obsessed, and believes he has found the answer. Of course, Mr.
Vale is thoroughly upset by this claim.
The Wild Numbers
reminded me strongly of Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture.
However, whereas Uncle Petros
made me feel nostalgic for my days as
a mathematics PhD student, The Wild Numbers
made me thoroughly glad
I had never finished that program.
This isn’t a happy story. At one point, Isaac confesses, “The women
I had been attracted to over the years had never understood my passion for
numbers, leading me to the conclusion that love and mathematics were mutually
I enjoyed the story of his quest to solve the problem, with his obsession
and the inevitable “mathematical hangover.” All in all, by the end
of the book, he appears to have a sad, empty little life, and I could only
feel sorry for him. Still, mathematical novels aren’t too easy to come
by, and I enjoyed discovering another one, even if I did wish it was a somewhat
© 2004 Sondra Eklund.
All rights reserved.