Friday, November 8, 2013

"An Elegant Solution" by Paul Robertson - elegant, passionate, and intellectual

An Elegant SolutionPaul Robertson writes an elegant novel of mystery, mathematics, and the mastery of God's creation in his early eighteenth century novel about some of the sharpest mathematicians of history.  The mathematical center of Europe, Basel, Switzerland, is essentially ruled by their University, and within the University, specifically the Chair of Mathematics.  And the Chair of Mathematics is ruled by the head of a highly competitive family of brilliant mathematicians - Johann Bernoulli.  In this family in which discord and distrust abound, Leonhard Euler is a student, servant, and friend.  Through his friendship with the middle son Daniel, he is dragged into researching the suspicious death twenty years earlier of Johann's brother Jacob, but that death begins to appear only one part of a conspiracy with far-reaching ambitions. 

In regards to history and setting, the author did his homework.  Not only was Leonard Euler a real, brilliant mathematician and christian, but the Bernoullis and much of their family dynamics and history mentioned in the story were real - from the rivalries between brothers Johann and Jacob to the bad relationship between Johann and his son Daniel, to the wrong spiral carved in Jacob's headstone, to each of their specialties in mathematics, and much more.  Important landmarks of Basel are painted beautifully - the Barefoot Square, the bridge over the Rhine, the Munster; details of its history are cleverly interspersed throughout the tale, from the famous geniuses who lived there, to the treatment of Jews, to its history with the Black Plague.  If the history and setting are so well researched, I can only imagine the mathematical aspects must be as well, though I bow to those who have a greater love and understanding of such things to say whether they are sound. 

It does not feel rushed like many modern tales of suspense, but the story is driven onward with a more old fashioned style.  This is partially due to the writing style - Robertson likes his metaphors and similes, and much of what people say feels like riddles; they do not necessarily say what they mean, but they always mean what they say.  He is more poetic than one generally finds these days, but it suits the period and theme.  Also appropriate, given its scholarly subjects, is that it demands one's attention to follow the prose, or one can easily become lost.  I did not find it particularly slow, but I think people with short attention spans would have trouble following it. 

While I still have no desire to study calculus, I could appreciate the author's passion for the subject.  He makes a strong statement of how math was created by God and is dependent on God to work, and that God purposefully imbedded it in creation. "It is my belief that the Creation in which we abide has been established by its Creator, established with a regulation by Mathematical principles, and these principles unfold with delightful intricacy and profound elegance" (376).

I enjoyed the story more than I expected.  It has a mysterious edge that borders on the fantastic, and it is littered with literary, mythological, and biblical references, which I enjoy.  I would definitely describe it as a guy book, rather than one geared toward women (there is a grand total of three females in the story, and they are definitely not there for romance).  However, if anyone enjoys an intellectual novel, or especially math, physics, and logic, with a firm base on God's creative genius, then I do highly recommend this book.  4 1/2 stars.

Thank you Bethany house for providing a free copy for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive and all opinions expressed are my own. 

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