Prime Delight

Image.ashxBeing a review of A Certain Ambiguity by Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal.

This book was the winner of the 2007 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Mathematics by the Association of American Publishers.

Ravi Kapoor, a young man from India, is studying at Stanford in the late 1980s. Like many college students, he is struggling to determine the path of his future life. He happens upon a class on infinity, a subject that reminds him of his dearly departed grandfather, Vijay Sahni. His grandfather had his own struggles – while visiting a small town in New Jersey in 1919, he is arrested for blasphemy.

The book examines Ravi’s dual endeavors to choose a direction in life and to resolve the contradiction between the grandfather he knew and loved and the man accused of blasphemy.  Mathematics is the key to understanding himself and his grandfather.

The stories of the two main characters are compelling, especially that of Vijay’s. The authors have managed to create rich characters, interesting plots and satisfying conclusions. But the authors have also managed to create an easy primer for non-mathematicians on some fundamental areas of mathematics. Here, for easy consumption are the basics of infinity, the Pythagorean theorem, prime numbers, non-Eudlidean geometry, and set theory. All, in under 300 pages.

Jarring for me, but probably unimportant to most readers, the authors – each with a degree in mathematics — mistakenly state there is no proof that there is an infinite number of prime pairs, that is prime numbers separated by two.  (The issue will be clear if you read the book.) There actually is a rather simple proof.

Although this is not speculative fiction in the strictest sense, it is fiction for those who love Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner, Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland or Clifton Fadiman’s Fantasia Mathematica.



  1. Anonymous

    Nice review. now on my reading list when the book club leaves me high and dry.

    • Thank you, though I can’t place your name or face.

  2. kevin

    Logins got out of sync.

  3. Eugene R.

    It does sound like a fascinating book, though I have to say I am apt to side with the authors about there not being a proof of the Twin Prime conjecture, unless it was solved recently and (as is all too likely) I did not learn of it.

    • Having just finished Michael Moorcock’s Modern Times 2.0, I must respond:

              1. I do have a proof, but it’s just a bit too large to fit in the margin of this blog.
              2. Let x equal the product of the first n odd primes, q equal x + 2 and r equal x + 4, then …
              3. Colonel Pyat watched as Jerry let loose with his needle gun, knocking out first the multiples of 2, then the multiples of 3, then …
              4. P = NP?
              5. He strode forward into the rolling fog of chaotic iridescent mist, swinging his black sword to and fro. The mist coalesced, patterns appearing …
              6. Three for the elven-kings … Nah, not even in the multiverse.
      • Eugene R.

        I like the way you think! And I did enjoy the Moorcock volume quite a bit, as well. In fact, when I wrote a review of it, I had to write it in the New Wave style of the title piece. No other approach made (non-)sense.

  4. So maybe you can explain to me what the Moorcock piece was about?
    And why hasn’t anyone told MM that the New Wave has been over for 30 to 40 years? (I suppose it could be argued that the New Weird is noveau New Wave lite.)

  5. I finished the book last week. Great fun, though I tired of the Socratic dialogues with the Judge pretty quickly. For me, the math proved more memorable and I suppose the authors would count that a success. If you enjoy that sort of material, I can recommend another mathematical tour: A Tour of the Calculus.

    Regrettably, I have found an error in Alan’s proof. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a remarkable solution which I have encrypted into this very post for posterity …

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