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The Wild Numbers: A Novel [Hardcover]

Philibert Schogt
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 12 2000
Isaac Swift is a mathematician - not an outstanding one, but a competent, unextraordinary pencil-pusher. And like all mathematicians, he's constantly reminded that it's the prodigies of his profession who advance human knowledge. The rest just try to understand. Now Isaac thinks he's found the solution to "Beauregard's Wild Number Problem," a puzzle that has stumped savants for centuries. And Dimitri, his mentor at the university, once a near-great mathematician himself, thinks Isaac is correct. If so, Isaac will have elevated himself to the ranks of the immortals. But now accusations of plagiarism arise, and the threat of violence that may not stop at the intellectual level looms over the university.

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From Amazon

Mathematical insight is like an assassin's bullet--you don't know it's there until it hits you. Dutch philosopher and mathematician Philibert Schogt shows us the workings of the math-obsessed mind in his short novel The Wild Numbers. Following the mental and physical ramblings of the unspectacular Professor Isaac Swift as he comes closer to solving a beautifully thorny problem left behind generations ago by an eccentric French genius, the book cleverly dissects the forces driving mathematical creativity. Swift just barely balances his overpowering mental impulses, often likened to a "buzzing in his head," with his physical and social needs. Those familiar with academic math departments will find Schogt's eccentric crank Leonard Vale entertaining and all too true:
The pages crawled with incomprehensible equations in his familiar scratchy handwriting. He always threw in as many integral signs, sigmas, and other mathematical symbols as possible, reminding me of the calculations of comic book geniuses. Here and there he had left a clearing in the dense jungle of formulae, in which he had written profound aphorisms, underlined three times and followed by three exclamation marks.
Vale becomes a serious problem when he accuses Swift of plagiarizing his work, driving the novel toward its dark conclusion. Nonmathematical readers shouldn't fear--the few equations are simply illustrations of Swift's thinking, and no advanced knowledge is required to follow the plot. Contrasting the flash of insight with the dull glow of truth, The Wild Numbers illuminates the plight of a mathematical mind stuck in a real world. --Rob Lightner

From Library Journal

This is a lighthearted, enjoyable novel about a bumbling but likable mathematics professor at an unnamed university who believes that he has discovered a solution to a famous mathematical puzzle known as "Beauregard's Wild Number Problem." Isaac Swift is socially and romantically awkward and is certainly less accomplished professionally than his colleagues in the math department. Nonetheless, he is a sympathetic character, and this capably crafted first novel follows his misadventures as he tries to achieve immortality as a mathematician, create a love life for himself, and fend off a deranged former high school math teacher who returns to the university as a student and ends up tormenting the entire department. Although Swift does not achieve immortality, by the end of the novel (after surviving a variety of catastrophes) he is modestly triumphant--at work with a colleague on a new research project and in love with a kind and sensible woman. Recommended for libraries with large modern fiction collections.
-Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., Canterbury, CT
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-Written Insight Into A Seldomly Explored World Sept. 18 2002
Format:Hardcover
Isaac Swift is a mediocre mathematics professor who hasn't come up with significant research since his thesis years ago. In the publish or perish world of academia, he increasingly feels pressure to produce. Desperate, he attempts to solve the famous Wild Number Theorem, a feat that would bring him fame and glory. Schogt offers the reader insight into the seldomly explored world and mind of a math professor but, don't worry, you need not know number theory to enjoy this well-written novel. We are with Isaac through his unexciting and lonely social life (his wife has left him), his interactions with students and rival professors, and his titanic struggle to solve the Wild Number problem. In the end, Isaac's problems do get solved in an unexpected and satisfying way. This is an excellent novel; the prose is accessible and the story moves forward quickly. Having an MS in Mathematics myself, I enjoyed the references to number theory that Schogt, himself mathematically trained, cleverly uses to make the non-existent Wild Number Theorem almost seem like a real problem in mathematics. I wanted to get out my pencil and, like Isaac, plunge into solving this problem! Still, all readers, including the math-challenged, will enjoy this universal human story. I give this novel four theorem proofs out of five.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Turning the crank Feb. 21 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Geniuses and lunatics each inhabit exotic, self-made worlds, with entry strictly limited by the resident's own "passport control." Perhaps this is why genius and madness are called different sides of the same [foreign] coin by the vast majority of people, who have "citizenship" in neither. In this overly ambitious first novel, mathematician/philosopher Schogt, with no claim to the former and no experience with the latter, attempts to portray the nature of each, and the differences between them. The result -- like a travelogue by someone who has never visited the places he is describing -- is predictably unconvincing.
The title of the book refers to the last of the riddles devised by the legendary 18th-century French prodigy and philanderer Anatole Millechamps de Beauregard, who would bet his circle of admirers that they could not solve his puzzle of the week before their next meeting, when he would "reveal all" and take their money. The riddle in question was the vain genius's last because, before he could reveal the solution, he and his mistress of the moment were strangled by the woman's jealous husband, and so "Beauregard's Wild Number Problem" became one of the great challenges of mathematics.
The "Problem," as Schogt describes it, "involved a number of deceptively simple operations, which, when applied to a whole number, at first resulted in fractions. But if the same steps were repeated often enough, the eventual outcome was once again a whole number. Or, as Beauregard cheerfully observed: 'In all numbers lurks a wild number. Guaranteed to emerge when you provoke them long enough.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Love and Mystery in the World of Math Nerds Aug. 23 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
A highly entertaining, accurate portrait of a particularly bizarre social scene: the real life of mathematicians. Yes, these people tend to be brilliant, but they're also neurotic, romantic, histrionic, and silly. Schogt clearly knows this world intimately -- and gives us just enough information to flesh it out, without going over the non-math head.
The Wild Numbers is a darkly comic tale of envy and ambition, set in an environment that (to most of us, anyway) is deeply alien: the hottest of intellectual hothouses. That Shogt pulls this off without once condescending, or lapsing into the standard tropes of the Academic Novel, is a startling feat.
It seems counterintuitive, but Schogt is of course right: the math novel should be a thriller. After all, this is a dangerous place. Kissinger once said that the most vicious politics he'd ever witnessed were in academia, because "the stakes are so small."
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