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A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel

Publisher: 
Princeton University Press
Number of Pages: 
304
Price: 
27.95
ISBN: 
9780691127095

There are very few novels in which mathematics plays a key role; in particular, 29 show up with a “mathematical rating” of 5 (out of 5) on Alex Kasman’s Mathematical Fiction page. This novel, not surprisingly, is on that list.

This is the story of Ravi Kapoor and his grandfather Vijay Sahni. Vijay is a mathematician who tries to pass along his interest to Ravi. Upon Vijay’s death, Ravi learns that he has left a large sum of money for the purpose of sending his grandson to college in America. Vijay buckles down, gets the necessary grades, and is accepted to Stanford. He majors in Economics, but during his senior year, decides to take a class called “Thinking About Infinity.” And in this class, he learns a lot more than he expected…

He learns about infinity and some basic analysis. But he also learns that his grandfather spent some time in America… and ended up in jail… for blasphemy. He gradually gets to read court documents to find out what happened. This conglomeration of events (an Indian mathematician spending time in jail for blasphemy, an American judge named John Taylor trying to decide what to do with said mathematician, an Indian student taking a mathematics course, the mathematics professor who enjoys jazz) seems like an odd collection, but they all have the one common thread alluded to in the title: certainty.

Taylor, a Christian, looks for certainty in his religion. Vijay, an atheist, looks to mathematics for certainty. Their conversations reveal the similarities (and differences) in their respective searches. Although Ravi is not as interested in the concept of certainty, one of the other students in his math class, Adin, is. While Vijay’s “faith” in mathematics is shaken by the appearance of non-Euclidean geometry in astrophysics, Adin has the benefit of all of the mathematics of the twentieth century. (And, yes, that includes Gödel’s Theorems, but they make a relatively small appearance.)

The double meaning that can be read from the title foreshadows several dualities that pop up in this novel: Vijay’s rejection of religion due to the axiomatic approach and John Taylor’s religion as an axiom; Vijay’s search for certainty and Adin’s search for certainty; earlier mathematicians’ unease with Euclid’s fifth axiom and Vijay’s unease with non-Euclidean geometry; Cantor’s revolutionary ideas of transfinite cardinals; and jazz. This novel offers a lot of mathematics, philosophy, and mathematical philosophy to the reader. In fact, much of the story consists of the lectures that Ravi attends. That’s a rather gutsy move by the authors: how many people are looking for a math lecture in their literature? The math is well-presented, but readers with little to no background in mathematics will probably end up skipping much of the lecture (to their loss).

The authors also try to bring in some of the history of mathematical certainty. They accomplish this by imagining things like letters and journal entries from Pythagoras, Nicole Oresme, Cantor, etc. It’s an interesting idea, although the results are somewhat mixed. The authors do stress, however, that these writings are purely fictional, and expound on the history in a section of notes at the end of the book.

I loved this novel. I hope we see more “mathematical novels” being published in the future.


Donald L. Vestal is Assistant Professor of Mathematics at South Dakota State University. His interests include number theory, combinatorics, spending time with his family, and working on his hot sauce collection. He can be reached at Donald.Vestal(AT)sdstate.edu.

Date Received: 
Monday, June 4, 2007
Reviewable: 
Yes
Include In BLL Rating: 
No
Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal
Publication Date: 
2007
Format: 
Hardcover
Audience: 
Category: 
General
Donald L. Vestal
09/26/2007
Publish Book: 
Modify Date: 
Monday, December 10, 2007

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