Apostolos Doxiadis interview (2000)

by ob

[Apostolos Doxiadis is the author of the bestselling novel of mathematics and obsession, “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture” (and, more recently, “Logicomix”). I’ve been to his house. It’s very nice. ]

OB: First things first: what is Goldbach’s conjecture? And why is it important?

AD: Goldbach’s Conjecture is the hypothesis that every even number greater than 2 (like 4, 6, 8 etc. ) can be written as the sum of two primes, i.e. two whole numbers whose sole divisors are the number 1 and themselves (like 2,3,5,7,11,13, etc.) This was first conjectured in 1742 by the German mathematician Christian Goldbach and, although it has now been checked to be true up to truly enormous numbers (at least up to 1014), no one has been able to find a general proof. And, the even numbers being infinite, we definitely need a general proof to call it a theorem, to be sure that it is a full mathematical truth. As to its importance: it seems to reflect (if true) a very basic insight about the way the primes (the building blocks of the number system, through multiplication) are distributed. Although Goldbach’s Conjecture sounds so ridiculously elementary it is so notoriously difficult — this certainly gives us the feeling that a truth of enormous importance lies concealed somewhere behind it.

OB: Have you ever tried to prove it yourself?

AD: Of course! I think I spent most of my free time during my junior year in college trying to crack it. Needless to say, I failed.

OB: Do you think (or even suspect) that it will ever be solved?

AD: Well, in principle there is no known reason why it shouldn’t. After [Andrew] Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, anything seems possible!

OB: Recent biographies of the mathematicians John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) & Paul Erdos (The Man Who Loved Only Numbers) made much of their obsessive natures, then there was the 350 year quest to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, and, of course, there’s Uncle Petros himself – so what do you think is it about mathematics that lends itself so readily to obsession?

AD: I think it is basically the clarity and non-ambiguity of its underlying conceptual language. As in chess (another occupation for obsessives), so in mathematics you can define your questions very concretely. Unlike problems in real life (‘Should I marry her/him?’ ‘Is this person sincere?’ ‘Will I be alive ten years from now?’) which are usually impossible to answer in any definitive way, mathematical problems offer the same enticement as crossword puzzles or detective stories: a well defined problem that promises a well-defined solution. Have you ever spent hours and hours trying to solve some silly puzzle? This is the stuff that mathematical obsession is made of, this sense of ‘damn it, I can solve this!’

OB: You were something of a mathematics prodigy yourself – you were admitted to Columbia University at the age of fifteen after submitting a paper. Where you ever tempted to follow the same route as Uncle Petros, and devote your life to the subject?
Indeed I was, but then I chickened out. In this respect my novel is largely autobiographical. Although I was probably a more gifted mathematician than the narrator/nephew (and definitely a less gifted one than Petros!) his reasons for abandoning mathematics are suspiciously similar to mine.

OB: You then became a film-maker and writer – what prompted that change of direction? And do you ever miss maths?

AD: Well, you know, I used to write (and even direct short films) before I became enamored of mathematics, so it was not really a change as much as following the course of least resistance – although this was a much more romantic process than it sounds. I was a very emotional adolescent and an ultra emotional young adult, and there was no way all that self-absorption and sensitivity could find an outlet in mathematics. The beauty and discipline of it charmed me very profoundly, but it offered no outlet for my tempestuous emotional life. I still love mathematics and enjoy watching the progress in the field from a safe distance – but I’m definitely not getting involved in any ambitious problem-solving projects. No, I do not miss being a mathematician. I never have.

OB: As someone who has worked in both fields, do you think – as Richard Dawkins argues in Unweaving the Rainbow – that too much is made of the divide between the arts and sciences?

AD: Are the two always necessarily at odds? Ananda Coomaraswamy, the art historian and great sage, has said that ‘art is a form of knowledge’ – and I do like to think of the arts as more practical than aesthetic activities. (I am no believer in Art for Art’s Sake). Yet, there are essential differences, the most basic of these being that the sciences tend to grow, building on past knowledge, whereas any form of ‘knowledge’ that the artist strives after has to start from scratch. There is no authority in the arts that is independent of personal experience. Yet I think Dawkins is absolutely right in this: the mentality of the true scientist is more often than not quite similar to the mentality of the true artist. They are both seekers after truth, both are after the same thing, really: trying to create order out of chaos.

OB: In many ways Uncle Petros feels almost like a fable or a moral lesson – a very traditional form of story telling. Is this deliberate?

AD: Of course. I believe, after Kurt Vonnegut (my favorite author!), that books must be ‘reader-friendly’. Their function is to communicate meaning and there is nothing like traditional storytelling to do this. If you have a clear meaning to communicate, a clear form is highly advisable – nay, unavoidable. If you are less clear about what you want to transmit, though, you can get yourself involved in any number of stylistic adventures.

OB: You’ve said that you think the ‘Big Long Text’-type of novel is going out of fashion…

AD: Well, is Uncle Petros so long – I tend to think of it as a rather short novel, one that can be read at one sitting, the same few-hour-span that you would give to seeing a film, or a play. But you are right: when I speak against the ‘Big Long Text’ I’m really making a point about the dissociation of much of narrative art from our basic cognitive capacities. I think that a BLT tends to cram in more information – and in a more unstructured form – than our brains can usefully absorb. I believe that a book/story/play should really have one basic idea to put across, and it should attempt to do this with maximum efficiency.

OB: You’re also interested in hypertext literature and the ways in which new media such as the internet can be used creatively. Are you optimistic about the future of the written word? Or do you worry that by concentrating on new tools and new technology, internet artists are neglecting the content of their work?

AD: Of course they are, but look at the films of the Lumiére brothers or Georges Mélies. It is natural: when a new medium is discovered its first practitioners become like children, they are more keen to explore its multitudinous forms than to make it subservient to content. This comes only with time. But I do not think that new media kill the old. The cinema did not kill the theatre, television did not kill the cinema and nothing killed opera, that old cow! The issue is never the ‘death of x art form’ but the cross-fertilization of the old with the new. This is where my interest in the new media lies. I think that the revolution in our perceptual universe brought about by electronic media (but also by the great power of electronic design tools in traditional, ‘paper’ publishing) has a lot to teach the writers of books. Word processing, the wonderful tools of desk-top publishing and design programs and now web-authoring tools really make us all much more aware about the possibilities of words to express meaning, either on their own or in collaboration with images, music, movement, links.

OB: You’ve translated Shakespeare into Greek, you’ve written libretti, you’ve directed films, written plays, novels and short stories – how do you chose your projects?

AD: I could try and describe a rational process here, but I wouldn’t be sincere. Usually, ideas come to me already wearing a certain form: this idea like a poem, the other one like a play and so on. I’m infinitely interested in this pairing, though. Which form suits which subject and why. But this interest is more theoretical than practical – as applied to my own work.

OB: Is there any field or genre that you haven’t tackled that you’d like to have a go at?

AD: Yes! I’d love to write an oratorio, but as I’m a complete musical illiterate I don’t think there is much hope in this direction.

OB: You were born in Australia, you’ve studied in the USA and France, you write in Greek and English – do you consider yourself part of any particular literary/storytelling tradition or culture?
Well, I like to think that I am a child of the world of traditional, oral storytelling. This has always been my most basic inspiration: not ‘authors’ but people trying to convey their meaningful stories to one another, in a rather simple and maximally effective way. My contemptuous remarks about BLT’s (Big Long Texts) have to do with my belief that the ascendancy of typography has done a lot to alienate us from our basic craving after simple, well-structured meaning in narratives.

OB: What other writers or artists (or, indeed, scientists) inspire you?

AD: I have endless admiration for narratives that are not really considered ‘artistic’ in the sense of the modern author producing a ‘work of literature’: the Icelandic Sagas, folktales, epics, personal narratives. And apart from Kurt Vonnegut (whom I adore, because he is so simple, direct and personal), I think that writers like Tolstoy (in his last tales) or Isaac Bashevis Singer, or the Greek writer Photios Kondoglou (alas, unavailable in any other language) have come very close to transforming the nameless, traditional, oral tradition into consciously forged, great ‘literary’ works. I love externally ‘naive’ literary texts like Robinson Crusoe but I idolize the Greek tragic poets and Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, all writers in whose work the human voice (the emphasis here is on voice) can be distinctly heard. They too are children of the mouth, not the pen. Apart from that, I am inspired by traditional music and the visual arts that have not been touched by the elaborations of the Renaissance.

OB: Finally – can you recommend any further reading for those whose appetite for mathematics has been whetted by ‘Uncle Petros…’?

AD: Well, Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem is an obvious choice, and also E. T. Bell’s classic Men of Mathematics, which is now considered rather unfashionable. Of course, one shouldn’t mistake reading about mathematics with reading mathematics. If it’s the latter that the readers want, they will need a better qualified mentor than my humble self.