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
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