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Pythagorean Crimes (2006)
Tefcros Michaelides
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors).

This murder mystery takes place amid the exciting developments occurring in the mathematical and artistic communities in Europe between 1900 and 1931. Much of what one will learn by reading this book is historically true. It is filled with intricately detailed biographies of famous mathematicians, political figures and artists. However, being fiction allows it to avoid the tedium one might find reading the same facts in a non-fictional source. The story of the murder keeps us interested in the details, wondering which facts may or may not prove to be useful in identifying the killer. And, as we identify with the protagonist, we feel as if we are not simply reading about Hilbert and Picasso, but actually meeting them. For me, it was a very enjoyable and informative read. I do worry, however, that someone who does not already know some of the history of mathematics and art may suffer from ``information overload''. There are portions of the book which are not quite as heavy -- including discussions of the protagonist's open marriage, Greek underworld figures with whom he must negotiate to free a young prostitute, etc. However, when math is discussed, the reader is expected to absorb a great deal of information in a very short space. Trained mathematicians are used to reading such dense material, and will benefit by already knowing something about figures such as Galois, Euler, and Hermite. But, even these ``experts'' will gain something from reading this carefully researched historical fiction. Also, any non-expert who has the patience and interest to read the book thoroughly will learn a tremendous amount of mathematics and history.

Much of it takes place in the form of a flashback as the protagonist remembers meeting and becoming friends with the murder victim at the International Congress of Mathematics at which David Hilbert gave his famous speech on the future of mathematics. Just by knowing this fact and the years mentioned in the opening paragraph, many astute readers will immediately recognize that Kurt Gödel's famous 1931 paper on decidability, providing a negative answer to one of Hilbert's problems, plays an important role in the novel. Moreover, for these astute readers, the title may reinforce the prejudice that this murder -- like the murder of Hippasus by the Pythagoreans when he discovered the irrationality of the length of the diagonal of a unit square -- was carried out when the victim discovered Gödel's theorem on his own to prevent him from revealing to the world that the consistency of mathematics cannot be verified mathematically. So, I am pleased to inform these savvy readers that the author was smart enough to add a surprise twist, making the story not as predictable as I feared it would be.

The book was originally published in Greek in 2006 and a translation to English was published in 2008. (Actually, it is soon to be published. I have just finished reading a proof of the book which the publisher was kind enough to send my way. The translation is a bit rough, and I'm hoping that a few of the errors I've noticed there can be corrected before the final version appears.) The author is certainly qualified to write mathematical fiction. In addition to being a math professor at Athens College (an elite high school with campuses in Greece and the US), Michaelides has written about mathematical fiction and has translated some of the works listed on this site into Greek (The Parrot's Theorem, Timescape, and D'alembert's Principle).

Of course, this book is sure to be compared with Apostolos Doxiadis' Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture. However, Pythagorean Crimes is really more similar to The Parrot's Theorem and A Certain Ambiguity, as it is clearly an attempt by the author to guide the reader through a detailed presentation of deep mathematics and important mathematical theories using a fictional mystery as motivation. And, like those other novels, it largely succeeds in this goal. (Finally, let me also mention that the portions of the book which take place at the Lapin Agile with Pablo Picasso reminded me of the wonderful play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin. In that play, Picasso meets and talks to Albert Einstein. It is not quite mathematical fiction, but awfully close, and worth seeing in any case.)

My review of this book appeared in the January 2008 AMS Notices.

Contributed by John C. Konrath

Informative & entertaining.

Contributed by Victor W. Marek

Professor Kasman,

Encouraged by your review of "Pythagorean Crimes" I bought the book and read it. I think that in your review of the book you missed the real problem with the book. The analogy between the discovery of irrational numbers is not analogous to Goedel's theorem, and certainly, by 18th century already mathematics lost its mysterious aspects, becoming a domain of human scientific activity as any other.

The other problems with the book, its total predictive character (actually, at the time very few people cared about decidability of any mathematical theories, probably fingers of two hands or about were enough for complete listing) there were not enough candidates for culprits, I mean, make it a very poor read. The Greek politics is also of limited interest to the Western audience.

To sum it up - a disappointment.

Professor Marek, I apologize if you feel that you were misled into purchasing the book because of my review. In fact, I do agree with your claim that the book was a bit too predictable. (As I mention in the review, only one extra twist was thrown into what was otherwise the obvious outcome.) However, I'm not sure I agree with your first point. In Pythagoras' day, as in the early 20th century, the majority of people were concerned with the practical uses of mathematics and were not concerned with the existence of irrational numbers or undecidable propositions. However, at each time, there was a small group of people who had a strong attachment to those existential questions. In the case of the Pythagoreans, it was literally a religious belief that the rational numbers were sufficient to describe anything in the universe, and for those working on the foundations of mathematics in Hilbert's day, there was an almost religious belief in the certainty and power of mathematics. People like Russell and Whitehead were working not only to axiomatize all of mathematics, but to prove that it is consistent and that the truth or falsehood of all meaningful statements was decideable from the axioms. (I think that if they had been more open minded about it, and less fanatical, it would have been immediately apparent to them that mathematics could not prove its own consistency, as they had hoped.) In both cases, the mathematical proof that the truth was more complicated than they had hoped was apparently truly shocking to the people in these groups. So, to me it still seems that the analogy between these two moments in mathematical history -- even if not perfect, not an isomorphism -- is a fruitful one.

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Works Similar to Pythagorean Crimes
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj
  2. A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri / Hartosh Singh Bal
  3. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  4. Pythagoras' Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery by Arturo Sangalli
  5. Division by Zero by Ted Chiang
  6. Continuums by Robert Carr
  7. Ultima lezione a Gottinga [Last lecture at Göttingen] by Davide Osenda
  8. No One You Know by Michelle Richmond
  9. Conned Again, Watson! Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math and Probability by Colin Bruce
  10. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
Ratings for Pythagorean Crimes:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4.11/5 (9 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.89/5 (9 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Mystery, Didactic,
MotifProving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, Gödel,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics, Logic/Set Theory,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)