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Pythagoras' Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery

Arturo Sangalli
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michele Intermont
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It’s not often that one can pick up a mystery novel and find mathematicians playing central roles. In Pythagoras’ Revenge this is the case. The story is, in effect, a search for the holy grail, with a mathematician and a classicist starring as the Knights Templar. The stage is set when a young museum curator visits the classicist in the hope of learning of the existence of original manuscripts of Pythagoras in order to put the finishing touches on an exhibit. She learns that there is no such manuscript… except that, with surprising timing, the classicist learns that perhaps one really does exist after all. Then he’s off and running to discover the first-hand writings of the famous Greek.

At the same time, the mathematician is looking to add a little adventure to his dull academic life, and finds himself becoming part of a special team devoted to unlocking a code believed to involve Pythagoras. How these two threads weave together – or perhaps one should say collide – has the novel traveling across several continents and through time.

While the book was easy to read, in several places it felt a bit stilted. Sometimes the author went to great pains to explain nuances of academic life; unfortunately, most of his attempts at explaining mathematics felt like a tutorial and not part of a novel. In addition, the construct of the museum curator looking for a manuscript for the exhibit seemed very forced. This character and plot line was meant to create interest in the main plot, but instead it seemed extraneous. It took a bit of effort for the author to bring me back on board.

Some artificiality is to be expected, I suppose, and certainly the math tutorials may be quite engaging for the young reader who has not yet encountered some of the ideas. I’ll admit that I enjoyed this book well enough. It moved quickly, and kept me wanting to turn the pages reasonably well. It also invited comparison to a book I read last year.

The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, was also a mystery built around an ancient manuscript and academic life. Sangalli’s book would have been a good warm up for Cadwell and Thomason’s novel; The Rule of Four managed to forego the traces of artificiality Pythagoras’ Revenge did not, and kept me riveted to the page. That said, both novels are pleasant fare for the summer months.

Michele Intermont is an associate professor of mathematics at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, MI.
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