Thursday, March 20, 2008

Math and Fiction

By Sunil K Poolani

A Certain Ambiguity

Gaurav Suri + Hartosh Singh Bal

Penguin Viking

Price: 450; Pages: 282

Did you notice the plus sign above, between the authors? That’s where the over-abundance (which can be mistaken for profundity and fecundity in the beginning) of mathematics starts in this extraordinary novel. And it flows and flows, cover to cover.

The novel is ‘extraordinary’ for the simple reason that it is not really a novel, but non-fiction, camouflaged as a history book (of mathematics). (By the way, there is an Author’s Note in the beginning; I thought there were two authors.)

And who better to pen this book other than Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal. Suri and Bal hold a master’s degree in mathematics from Stanford and New York University, respectively, and have been friends since childhood. And this book is the fruit of their enduring childhood.

No doubt, it is a novel attempt and in some respect the authors do succeed, too. My quarrel is, why did a book that is so rich in making math simple to the layperson had to be written (fruitlessly, nevertheless) in a fictional format? Knock, knock… No answer.

If it were a pure work of fiction minus the mathematical ‘ambiguity’, the storyline is something worth a dream. Ravi Kapoor studies at Stanford (in the late 1980s) and he takes a class on infinity. Here is where he faces the dilemma (both mathematical and philosophical) which his grandfather (Vijay Sahni, who too was an avid mathematician) had faced, many decades earlier, for which he had to land up in jail. Why jail? Because Sahni was charged under an “obscure blasphemy law in a small New Jersey town in 1919.”

What Kapoor and Sahni, which we gather as the pages are flipped through, have in common is that they stumble upon the power and weakness of Euclidean geometry, which has been considered to be the height of human certainty for eons. In the process the duo had to shed the basic beliefs and choices of mathematics.

The first-half of the book (primarily fiction) reads much better than the second half (largely mathematical quotients, theories and, yes, diagrams and research). Once a reader starts the book s/he is taken on a rollercoaster ride, adrenaline rushing; that is if the reader has an aptitude for decoding and savouring the infinity that is mathematics.

So is it meant for the lay reader? To be fair, the authors are successful in making complex mathematics ideas available. Like? Sample this: Enter a number, say, 342. Type it again and you have 342342. It will be divisible by 13. And you get 26334. It would be then divisible by 11. So you have 2394. Divide it by 7 and finally you get 342. This works in almost all the numbers. Cute, isn’t it?

Yes, the book is full of these little tricks, but the tricks become serious riddles and cerebral as you turn the pages. One reflective conclusion that can be drawn out of mathematics is how much ever ambiguous it might seem, the more you delve deep into it, with a pinch of modesty and decorum, and more are the chances of solving them and, in the process, enjoying them.

Mathematics is like any other stream of arts, be it literature, performing arts or plastic arts. There is an infinity that is mind-boggling and there lies the beauty; a realisation that more you analyse and solve the mysteries of the game, the more the awareness that it is vastly and hugely endless. Galileo, Plato and our own Ramanujam realised it, so do most of the contemporary mathematical brains. But it is true that mathematics, like any other art form, is losing its relevance; precisely for that reason this attempt to revive and regenerate interest in this stream of science should be welcomed.

-- Deccan Herald

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