A tongue-in-cheek, easy-read, quite enjoyable romp of a story about a reclusive mathematician named “Bancharski”, a play on the names of mathematicians Banach and Tarski (unfortunately, Banach-Tarski theorem does not make an appearance. A shame). Bancharski is closely modeled after Alexandre Grothendieck, even using his complete renouncement of Mathematics, creation of rambling memoirs, protest against military funding of mathematics, etc. For good measure, the author floats a wild idea as to what happened to him at the very end.
There are many ingredients mixed up in this soup:
The book makes for a good read due to all of these, though I was disappointed with the weak ending. The book has cute references sprinkled along the way, like,
“Set of all sets”, a reference to a joke about “Zorn's Lemon” , a character named “Porlock” as an unwanted intruder (as it turns out), and sentences like:
- Bancharski supposedly invents a probability modifier, a “machine that affects probability”, a “Coincidence Engine”. It might well be a feedback loop created by the leakage of the thoughts of his extremely powerful and “cracked” mind
- An ultra-secretive agency of the government, “The Directorate of Extremely Improbable” (DEI) thinks he has “weaponized the observer's paradox”
- The DEI (their motto, “Ignota Ignoti” — “Unknown Unknowns”, with a hat-tip to Rumsfeld) encounters a strange photo their satellite has taken. In the middle of a farm-field near Atlanta appeared a Boeing 737 plane, miraculously assembled by a hurricane out of scrap metal — a prank MIT engineering students would pull off. It's a plane that does not exist — at least no agency has any record of it. Before DEI agents can get there, a second hurricane destroys the plane.
- DEI has also intercepted a cryptic message, “The coincidence engine is starting to work”, a message from a fiction novel written 10 years ago by an MIT Math professor.
- The device appears to have been stolen by a Math student, Alex Smart, who is either on the run or flying out to propose to his long-distance girlfriend.
- A female mathematician, Isla Holder, appears to have a special connection to Bancharski. And is a key component to the disappearance of the device
- Agent from DEI are trying recover the device from Alex and protect him from the agents of a private intelligence outfit, MIC
- There is counter-espionage story, a stock market story and a story about parallel universes.
- And everyone is chasing everyone else.
|(quoted from The Coincidence Engine)|
“Idea of using fluctuations in the ambient spread of probabilities to track the device.”
“Little subtle ripples of unlikelihood, little freaks, unexpected variations from the mean could be discerned”
“Probability doesn't itself exist, necessarily, at least not in the sense people might understand it.”
“Probability isn't something you can affect, like a magnet affects iron filings. When you load dice, you're not affecting probability, you're affecting physics. Probability isn't a force. It doesn't DO anything.”
“I'm a professor of mathematics, not of yet-to-be-discovered Physics”