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Mathematics? More like Math-ha-matics

by Archives March 31, 2009

Most mathematical formulas lack a certain “ha” variable. Algebra has never been the punch line to a joke, and when thinking of trigonometry, the furthest thing from your mind is a smile. To solve this ongoing problem, Concordia professor R.J. Stern has spent the last three years writing the campus novel–a genre devoted to the culture of universities–Goldman’s Theorem. Stern infuses the culture of math with humour to make a seriously funny work of fiction.
At the centre of Goldman’s Theorem is Herman Melville Singleton, a professor and Math 101 czar at the University of Northern Vermont. Surrounding Singleton is a collection of archetypes found only in an academic setting, including the novel’s namesake: Professor Simon Goldman. Singleton has been friends with Goldman for over four decades. They share a taste in sports, math, and women.
Goldman is one of the novel’s most interesting characters. Lured away from Harvard by Singleton, he is given a generous research grant that will soon run out. With pressure to perform building up, Goldman claims to have solved the “Holy Grail” of math problems.
At times, Goldman can be funny as he quips sarcastic comments or painful to read as he begins to crumble. He may put on an indestructible exterior, but in the end, his past resurfaces and leaves him to rebuild.
Stern made the leap from teaching mathematics to writing fiction after finding inspiration in the story of Sir Andrew Wiles. Wiles published a solution to a Millennium Prize Problem (taken from a set of problems still unsolved) only to find that the proof contained an error. Stern came close to experiencing the same emotional upheaval, but managed to stop his article before it was published.
In the past few years, mathematics have become a part of pop culture. Movies and television shows like A Beautiful Mind, Numb3rs, and 21 seem to show the inside workings of mathematicians. But to Stern, it’s not the complete truth.
“Looking at it from a math point of view, you could tell it was an outsider writing,” Stern said.
Setting out to uncover the world of math and university life, Stern writes with the eyes of an insider. Goldman’s Theorem takes on a very personal and often relatable tone. At some point, you can only smile as Stern writes about the little things that make university life, from starving graduates to students running a take out restaurant from a dorm. It is clear that Stern has poured himself into the pages. The descriptions of New York, the squash games, and even some characters are drawn from Stern’s life.
“Write what you know,” said Stern as he added with a laugh, “maybe I’m lacking creativity.”
The minor characters in Goldman’s Theorem are developed slightly, but are more or less there to provide humour. Chairman of mathematics Guillermo Slutnick provides more then one laugh as he plays poker in his office or spews vulgarities in a number of languages.
One aspect of Goldman’s Theorem that was not executed as well as the humour were the shifts between time, location, or flashbacks. Stern expresses these with a line of asterisks, splitting chapters into sections and sub-sections. However, it is Stern’s first novel and little details like the transitions could be hammered out in later novels.
Overall, Goldman’s Theorem is an enjoyable and easy read. Knowledge of calculus or higher math is not required, and you’re more then likely to smile as university life unfolds on the pages.

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