Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Mathematician makes a very good Hero! The Wild Numbers by Schogt, Review

Philibert Schogt
photo: chris van hout

I discovered this charming and peculiar book in an excellent "remains" bookstore in the Village*- an all-too-slim novel about Isaac Swift, 35-year-old mathematics professor afraid of never doing anything spectacular- when he finds himself in the middle of solving one of mathematic's greatest puzzles.

Over a series of sleepless nights, nearly to drive him insane, Swift finds himself solving the "Beauregard Wild Number Problem," proposed by 19th century mathematics genius Anatole Millechamps de Beauregard. The core of the book is about math, but as accessible as a letter from a best friend.

De Beauregard, a mind too restless to be more than a riveting, large-living and -loving puzzle writer, was murdered by his best friend when found in bed with his wife. Thus de Beauregard died without telling anyone the answer to his latest riddle, and a century of mathematicians have all but despaired of solving it.

What- you've never heard of mathematician Anatole Millechamps de Beauregard?! Or of his "Beauregard Wild Number Problem"?!!


That's what makes this slim volume so delightful. If you are an actual mathematician you might find the "wild numbers" banal (a friend complained "But it's nothing but an integers problem"), but to anyone else, the fake math looks hilariously plausible. The Dutch author (also many years in US/Canada), Philibert Schogt, studied philosophy with a minor in math.

On the back cover, a mathematician writes "I have never read a better fictional description of what it's like to work in pure math."

The book is not just about staying up all night chasing "wild numbers." There are unpleasant and antagonistic characters (largely the best), lovers, accusations and even a fight. It's a quick, light and fun read; don't come looking for depth. The book works best not in plot or characters, but in taking us along on the chase of the "wild numbers."

Here's a sample:
of his 2nd grade arithmetic teacher:
"Miss Wallace warned us that we were not allowed to take a bigger number away from a smaller one. When I asked her what would happen if we did, she hesitated before answering, a panicky look in her eyes... 'Stop worrying so much about it, Isaac,' she said. 'Just let it be zero for now.' Her reassurance only made me more anxious. There was no such thing as 'for now' in arithmetic..."
the depths below zero giving me vertigo

Later that day when his father answers his "forbidden question" what is 5-8? that the answer is negative, the 7 year-old Swift realizes "Zero was no longer the absolute bottom of the arithmetical world, but the portal to an arithmetical underworld...I could not sleep that night, the depths below zero giving me vertigo..."

There is an entire literature of fiction about scientists and mathematicians, much of it promising to be charming, which I shall investigate at my leisure.

first published in Dutch 1998
Schogt himself prepared the English edition
Four Walls Eight Windows 2000

agent's website describes all Schogt's novels (he has three more)

*bookstore blog:

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