a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|This widely acclaimed and popular Dutch novel concerns a mathematician who is a sort of intellectual public figure that the United States does not seem to have. After winning the Fields Medal for his work on knot theory, Dutch mathematician Siem Sigerius becomes the rector of a university and a celebrity whose opinion on everything is of interest to the public. However, it is not his math that is the focus of this book. Rather, the book is really about the "seedy" side of his seemingly perfect life, including an affair with a freshman at his university, a step-daughter who works in pornography and a son recently released from prison after serving time for murder.
Although math does get mentioned every once in a while throughout the book, it is not especially relevant to the plot except that it explains the source of Sigerius' fame and political power. So, from my point of view, the most interesting thing about it is the way that he breaks the standard (American) stereotype of a mathematician. For instance, before beginning his work in math, Siem Sigerius was famous as a Judo wrestler and only took up math after an injury prevented him from continuing in that career. Although there is a major character in the book who is schizophrenic, I am pleased to see that for once it is not a mathematician. Sigerius has quirks, including apparently a lack of interest in sex for many years that was replaced by an interest in math, but he is a powerful and extraordinary man. He is no saint, but he is also not the sort of single-minded nerd we so often see representing mathematicians in fiction.
I will leave it to other reviewers to comment on how well written this is for a first novel, what it shows us about society and family, and so on. Instead, let me just make a two quick remarks related to math.
First of all, the result for which he supposedly wins his Fields Medal is coming up with a polynomial that completely identifies a knot. This is a bit more powerful than anything we already have, but closely related to some real results in the theory of knot polynomials. The thing is, given two knots (which you really can think of as a tangled piece of string, though to mathematicians it is a loop and not a string with two ends like shoelaces), it can be difficult to tell if you could pull and push one of them until it looks just like the other. If you can, we say they are the same knot. Indeed, we have ways to associate polynomials to knots in such a way that you always get the same polynomial from any two equivalent knots, but so far nobody has found one which does not also sometimes give the same polynomial for two different knots as well. If I understand correctly, Siem Sigerius supposedly found one.
[Note added Oct 2015: On his Mathematics in Fiction page, Tom Koornwinder has identified the likely source of the knot theoretic aspects of the story. He says "The author may have arrived at this idea when he interviewed Vaughan Jones in October 1998 for the weekly newspaper of the University of Twente. Jones was there as a speaker in the annual symposium organised by the Fundamental Analysis group." Indeed, Fields Medalist Vaughan F.R. Jones is the mathematician whose name first comes to mind when one thinks of polynomial knot invariants. It can hardly be a coincidence that Buwalda had the opportunity to meet and interview him a decade before writing this novel.]
At one point in the book, Sigerius' wife suggests to Paul ErdÅ‘s that "a mathematician is a machine for converting coffee into hypotheses". This is very close to the famous quote often misattributed to ErdÅ‘s and I wonder if the word "hypotheses" instead of "theorems" here was something intentional by Buwalda or if it is a matter of the English translation.
The title, which I suppose must sound exotically American to a Dutch reader, refers to the street in Berkeley on which Sigerius and his family lived when he worked at the University of California.
Essentially this is a tale about the small things that grow and combine to destroy a life that initially seems ideal, like a house with cracks in the foundation which slowly grow larger and larger until it collapses. For most readers, the book would not be significantly different if Siem Sigerius had been something other than a mathematician, so long as it was understood that he was someone respected and powerful. ( I suppose, the fact that he is a mathematician is probably also supposed to reassure us that he is smart, though not smart enough to save himself.) For me, however, it is a pleasant surprise to see a mathematician character so far from the common portrayal of someone who hides behind mathematical abstractions and has no connection to the real world, even if Siem Sigerius' world is not a very pleasant one.
I am grateful to Arno Kuijlaars for telling me about this book when we first met at a conference in Sardinia.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)