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***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 exclusive.”

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 happier story.

Copyright © 2004 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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