Denis Guedj

The Parrot’s Theorem

Can’t
say I was impressed as the recommendations encouraged me to be.

I
like the idea – it’s cool when gifted academics who love their subject can make
it palatable for the uninitiated (as Lodge, for example, can do with literary theory on a good
day). Even better if they can then incorporate it into an entertaining plot.

Alas,
this is another Sophie’s World, where plot and character are overwhelmed by
lecture notes. It simply isn’t convincing to paint his target audience – those
X-box playing, eye-brow pierced, hip-hop teenagers represented by Jon-and-Lea –
going into raptures over calculus. We’re supposed to be taken in, seriously, by
passages such as:

*‘Well, why *do* we have a result which is patently absurd?’ Jonathan asked again.*

*‘Because of my
hypothesis’, Lea looked down.*

*‘And what was
your false hypothesis again?’*

*‘That there is
a fraction which, squared, equals 2: a ^{2}/b^{2} = 2.’*

*‘Then get rid
of it!’*

*The twins
picked up two forks from the table and began tapping a reggae beat on two wine
glasses, singing: *

*We know that*

*By our action*

*Which,
squared, could equal 2, *

*It’s true,
it’s true.*

*A round of
applause greeted this Bob Marley version of their proof…*

Oh
really? OK, he’s turned a proof into dialogue involving teenagers, and dropped
Bob Marley’s name, but this simply is not enough to make this cool or credible
(indeed, its transparency makes it the opposite). This is not an aberrant
passage: the family are constantly bursting into rapturous applause or riotous
laughter over some algebraic expression. Doubtless Guedj tortured himself in
trying to break down various theories to their barest and most understandable
forms, but the reactions he paints in his imagined audience are wildly
different from those of the actual readers. It’s like the self-deceptive
optimism of canned laughter in a dodgy sit-com.

He
has succeeded in incorporating some interesting history of mathematics into
something more palatable than a straight non-fiction primer: I particularly
enjoyed the fascinating biographical anecdotes around some of the individual
mathematicians. The characters interwoven make it more possible to get through
some of the theory, but I don’t think he was successful in integrating his plot
with that of the chronology of maths theory. The characters are interesting,
but their relationships and reactions strain credibility too far, and the pages
of theory usually do nothing to enhance or inform the plot.

*October 2007*