“Peter K was the first person on earth ever to invert a skew symmetric matrix by pressing a button”. So begins the story, set in the years where computers had just started making a foray into the world of high finance. Peter Kalinkowitz is a stereotypical nerdy mathematics graduate who does mental calculations when he gets nervous – like calculating the volumes of all the buildings on a street using idealized constructs like a cylinder, a parallelopiped, etc. He manages to get a job on Wall Street because equally stereotypical cigar-smoking bankers who understand only executive dining rooms are unable to understand but are suitably impressed by Peter’s high-falutin presentation on using mathematics in predicting stock market movements (“at the end of the presentation, Peter almost fell down. He had misused the word ‘cofactor’ twice, as Niels Abel and Kronecker might have done in the last century”. Of course, none of those present even knows what ‘cofactor’ means)
The situation repeats itself multiple times, where his superiors use him as a mathematical prop to impress clients but are not necessarily convinced about the innate importance of his work, per se (At one point, a military general, one of his supporters, takes him to lunch with someone important to talk about Markov processes). Against this background, Peter is constantly anguished about the quality of his work, the balance he wants to maintain between work and family and his desire to please his superiors by fleshing out theorems or mathematical schemes in less time than he thinks he adequately needs. As his physician puts it, “His blood pressure was reaching life threatening numbers”. There is a strong feeling that the author is replicating the “publish or perish” scenario in a non-academic setting.
By the end of the story, Peter realizes that “people showed hardship much more to him than they did to others”, effectively pushing him subconsciously to sacrifice himself for their comfort.