The French Mathematician

[openbook booknumber=”0425172910″][rating:3/5]

While growing up in revolutionary France, Evariste Galois immersed himself in the study of mathematics, a pursuit that allowed him a welcome glimpse of order at a time when chaos consumed his country. Arrogant, ambitious, and brilliant, Galois dreamed of solving the quintic, a complex equation that had baffled many talented mathematicians before him–but after his father’s mysterious death, he devoted himself to Republican politics with the same fervent energy he had applied to his mathematical studies. Rich in historical detail and bursting with intellectual passion, this captivating novel describes a genius’s valiant quest for truth–in a turbulent and uncertain era that in many ways mirrors the one in which we live today.

I am sharing this review for posterity’s sake, this is the very first review I ever wrote and posted online. I blogged this review over ten years ago on December 13, 2001. I meant to post it here on its ten year anniversary but the holidays got in the way. Instead I am posting it today to kick off a new year with. This review is full of spoilers (seriously, it spoils just about the whole book) and is really more of a book report than a review but I can definitely see some of my beginnings in this and so I decided what better way to start a new year than with my start in book blogging. Enjoy!

“The French Mathematician” started out life as a project that was submitted for a Master of Arts degree entitled “A Fictional Biography of the French Mathematician Evariste Galois 1811-1832”. The author, Tom Petsinis set out to link the humanities and the sciences in a piece of writing that would tell the tragic tale of Evariste Galois in such a way so that writing majors might be able understand the type of mathematics that Evariste fathered and also the man himself. Petsinis is a professor who teaches mathematics at the University of Technology. And, he came across Evariste’s story while attending a lecture on Group Theory, a branch of mathematics based on Galois’s discoveries. The book is a well-written three-part biography with an excellent choice in writing style. It is very accurate for a book about whose subject there is such a small amount of information available on. Following is a summary and review of the various parts of “The French Mathematician” in the order that they appear in the book, for the most part.

There is no introduction, just acknowledgements of the support of various professors during the undertaking of this endeavor.

The first chapter is written as though it should be tacked on to the end, but is instead written at the beginning. The conclusion, on the other hand, simply gives what the fate of Evariste’s discoveries was to be.

Part one summarizes Evariste’s introduction and love affair with mathematics, his undying faith in the “x” and the power of that “x” to replace the cross and change the world to a place of order. Something Evariste believed would come about with the (French) Revolution. That the revolution would lead from chaos to mathematical precision. He believed in the power of mathematics.

Part two shows Evariste’s change of loyalties as he is swept up into the revolution. With the death of his father on his conscience and a need to prove himself and make himself great after being locked behind school walls during the outbreak of violence in the streets of Paris. He forsakes mathematics for the sword and the flame, wreaking buildings and joining various Republican organizations. He seems crazed at this point, thinking violence and a complete rebuilding of the French empire will be the only path to a Republican era.

Part three illustrates Evariste’s slow return to mathematics. He still clings to his Republican ideals but he begins slowly coming around to recognizing and nurturing his love of mathematics. He begins to write and submit works again and even holds a series of public speeches where he lays out his theories and proofs for his work. Throughout this section you watch as he is torn between mathematics and republican ideals. And he never really decides either way when he is arrested and imprisoned for six months for his part in the revolution. While in prison he becomes very sick so he is transferred to a hospital where he meets and falls in love with the Doctor’s daughter. Unfortunately she is only flirting with him and when her fiance (one of Evariste’s good friends) returns to Paris, his friend is forced to challenge Evariste to a duel.

I find that the writing is reminiscent of the style of writing popular during Evariste’s time (1811-1832). Prone to detail and more advanced diction then what is commonly known today, the book could almost pass for the diary/notebook the author “claims” it is. Unfortunately when referring to acts of a sexual nature the writer approaches the subject more blatantly than a writer of the nineteenth century would and uses far less subtltey. “The French Mathematician” is an excellent read that is recommended for English and Math majors alike.

Leave a Reply