a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for young adults.|
|Although his family would normally expect him to stay in their small town and take over the family business (a combination of a furniture store and funeral home), Mead Fegley's "genius" gives him the unprecedented opportunity of going to college instead. However, one week before graduation and just before he was to make a presentation on his work on the Riemann Hypothesis, Mead is back at home, refusing to talk to his professors or to tell his family what is wrong.
In many ways, this book is a mystery in that the plot itself poses various puzzles to the reader: How did Mead's cousin die and why does his uncle blame him? What terrible occurrence resulted in Mead's sudden homecoming? Which of the unusual encounters are figments of Mead's imagination and which are real? etc. The "gimmick" of presenting the scenes out of chronological order to enhance this aspect of the book works well and some of the resolutions to these puzzles were satisfying, although others struck me as being forced and unbelievable.
Mathematics plays a major role in this novel. Many authors would merely have stated that Mead was a mathematical prodigy, given him a few stereotypical characteristics of mathematicians and barely mentioned it again. In fact, since the main point of the book is about the socialization of the character, for most readers this would have been just fine. But, Jacoby is quite explicit about the mathematics and sprinkles it throughout the whole book, which I very much appreciate.
The mathematics which appears is nearly all specific to the Riemann Hypothesis, and the author mentions having used John Derbyshire's "Prime Obsession" as a resource. So, I am guessing that this really was the entire basis for the mathematics included in the novel. If so, I am impressed with how well it was implemented. For the most part, she has got the basic ideas correct and some of the dialogue sounds mathematically perfect. In other cases, it is a bit off and the math gets slightly confused.
Before discussing this aspect further, let me pause and briefly explain the Riemann Hypothesis to any readers who many not be familiar with it. The mathematician Bernhard Riemann studied a function ζ(s) (the "Riemann Zeta Function") which can be defined as a sort of infinite product involving the variable s and the prime numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, ... The question of interest is "for what numbers s is ζ(s) equal to zero?" We know the answer if s is a real number, but for complex numbers we have only a conjecture that these roots all lie along a certain line in the complex plane. It is this conjecture which is known as "The Riemann Hypothesis". It could be resolved either by a proof demonstrating that the conjecture is true or just by finding a single counter-example. The question is of great interest to mathematicians partly because it is a difficult puzzle whose solution has eluded us for a century, but the resolution of this question does have some implications for number theory and (in particular) concerning the distribution of prime numbers.
In the novel, Mead is shown to be the first person to use a supercomputer to compute a large number of zeros of the zeta function (providing statistical evidence for the hypothesis even if not proving it) and then also to discover a connection between the distribution functions of these zeros and the spectra of chaotic dynamical systems. At one point, she mentions among the names of the experts who will be attending Mead's presentation "Hugh Montgomery" and "Michael Berry". These are two of the real mathematicians (well, physicist in the case of Berry) who are responsible for the mathematical discoveries that are attributed to Mead in the novel. Perhaps their inclusion here is a sort of subtle acknowledgement, which might explain the anachronism of mentioning Berry in this context even though he had not yet published any results on the Riemann Hypothesis in 1980.
The first few discussions of the Riemann Hypothesis in the book were so perfect, I was thinking that Jacoby must have advanced mathematical training and had begun to expect the level of mathematical exposition to continue. But, the discussion of infinite series between Mead and his first academic advisor was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that she mistakenly refers to it as a harmonic series (which is a particular divergent infinite series) the descriptions are the sort of approximations of the truth that one expects from popular accounts (like the one the author read) and not what a math professor and supposedly brilliant math student would say to each other. Other oddities include the frequent mention of the Mathematical Intelligencer and American Mathematical Monthly (two real periodicals, but not ones known for presenting advanced math research) as the resources Mead would consult, the common error of describing the Riemann Hypothesis as "an equation" which needs to be "solved" (it is a statement, and it is either true or false), a reference to plotting the zeros in the "function plane", the odd suggestion that "Number Theory" (a very large branch of mathematics) is nothing other than the study of the Riemann Hypothesis, etc.
As I complain about Jacoby's slight (really slight) errors here, I find myself thinking about Mead and hoping I am not too much like him. Theodore Mead Fegley is a very unpleasant character. (Interestingly, the author claims he is at least partly based on her father.) He is offensive, competitive, and insecure to the point that he nearly always says or does the wrong thing throughout the book. I am sure that Mead would point out all of the places that his creator reveals her lack of true mathematical expertise in the novel. I think it is this characterization, and its connection to the concept of "genius", that is really the main idea of the novel.
Mead has an overbearing mother, a father who works with dead bodies, a popular and athletic cousin, and classmates who tease him. All of this gives us some understanding of why he is such an anti-social jerk. Perhaps it also is intended to explain why he is a "genius" in the first place. Unlike the representation of prodigies in some other works of fiction, here his genius seems to be little more than an interest in academics and a willingness to spend a lot of time working on it (if only to avoid the troubles in the rest of his life). He cannot magically see the future like young Gauss in Measuring the World. Actually, he makes fun of the concept of genius by teasing the naive people in his hometown, telling them that he's touring with Stephen Hawking or that it has been shown that geniuses have a body temperature one degree lower than that of "ordinary people". With one exception, I am left with the impression that Mead is an ordinary person, but an ordinary person whose environment has forced him to excel in academics.
Personally, I find this a refreshing change from the nearly deified image of "genius" I have encountered elsewhere. But, aside from the fact that he is an unpleasant person, Mead Fegley shares one more trait with the popular image of the mathematical genius in fiction today: he has delusions of people talking to him which he has trouble distinguishing from reality. As well as visions of his professors and classmates which are apparently figments of his imagination, he also has several discussions with Berhard Riemann himself, though these at least he recognizes must be unreal. In both A Beautiful Mind and Proof, the mathematician character has such delusions as well. Has it gotten to the point where people just assume that mathematical geniuses see "ghosts" around them all of the time? Not only does this book reinforce this misconception with Mead's character, but it also relates an anecdote of a boy who delivered newspapers in Princeton who claims to have seen Einstein talking to people who weren't there. So far as I know, Albert Einstein did not have any such delusions...in fact, outside of fiction I am not aware of any mathematician having these delusions of people around them. (Yes, John Nash did suffer from schizophrenia and so was delusional, but they did not take the form of imagined people as they did in the film!)
Anyway, this really is a pretty good book. It is slightly flawed, when considered either from a purely literary or a purely mathematical viewpoint. But, "slightly flawed" is still pretty good (B+ quality) and definitely worth checking out as an interesting story and an investigation of the concept of "genius".
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)