Critical Review of The French Mathematician by Tom Petsinis

The book titled The French Mathematician by Tom Petsinis is one of the best of its genre. It is not often that biographies are written in the form of fiction. The author, having adopted the form of novel for this work, captures the essence of the character of Evariste Galois, the brilliant young French Mathematician whose life was cut short at the tender age of 21. The author carries the extra burden of using a first person narrative in the novel, whereby his imagination tries to capture the psyche and style of Galois. Though literary license would smudge some of the facts about the subject, it succeeds in showcasing the essential qualities of Galois’ personality and achievements. For a project such as this, the lack of abundant primary resources can be an advantage. Contrary to confining the author with established facts about the subject and the backdrop, it releases the author to fill up the blanks using creative imagination. And Persinis uses his creative talent to not just construct a plot or story, but to draw the reader further into the consciousness of the subject.

As one reads through the novel, an impression of Galois as a revolutionary youth who had problems accepting the mores of his time becomes clear. That is why he got involved in student politics in his early teens. The same revolutionary zeal seen in his short political life was also seen in his mathematical life, where his papers have advanced the cause of mathematics greatly. The mathematical achievements of Evariste Galois can be summed up this way: He was the the inventor of the notion of a finite group. More importantly, he applied his new group theory to an unsolved problem of his time by giving “a necessary and sufficient group-theoretic condition for a polynomial to be solvable by radicals”. Evariste Galois lived between 1811 and 1832, a period when French society was under rapid transformation. The post-Napoleonic France was in political ferment and young students like Galois were its chief participants. Unfortunately, Galois’ political stances would antagonize the King and the educational establishment. As a result, he would be denied enrollment in the leading institutions of the day. We also learn from the novel that the outstanding genius of Galois was accompanied by his tendency to be arrogant. Describing the final days of Galois’ life, the author suggests that the fatal duel he gets involved in could have been avoided had he exercised prudence. In what is a case of tragic irony, only when Galois becomes aware of his impending death does his creative output reach its highest expression. For example, in the final days before his fatal duel with his friend-turned-foe, Galois writes down his most significant mathematical discoveries in his letters to friends and other well wishers.

Students of history, culture and mathematics can all find this book of interest. This book will also be a valuable resource for students of French history and culture. When compared to details pertaining to Galois’ personal life and personal thoughts, Petsinis has not fictionalized aspects of the social and political milieu. As a result, the description of social and political life in early nineteenth century France is accurately documented. The emphasis on mathematics is not very strong for reasons discussed earlier. Still, Petsinis manages to convey the key discoveries of Galois to the extent that a novel form would allow. The fact that Petsinis is a trained mathematician himself has helped the project greatly.

If one has to pick flaws in the novel, it would be the liberties taken by the author in presenting the protagonist’s thought processes. There is no claim made by Petsinis about adherence to fact and hence the reader should not take them to be authentic. At different passages in the book, when Petsinis quotes Galois, one can see that the latter speaks a lyrical, florid style of prose. Passages like these look inauthentic and artificial for their style, substance and richness seem too grand for the character of Galois. So it is fair to say that the author has let his personal vision of life and his ways of thinking to get into the character of Evariste Galois. To this extent, the characterization of Galois comes across as artificial and trumped up. Furthermore, the fashion in which the character of Galois articulates his thoughts and ideas comes across as odd for a teenage boy, however brilliant he might have been. For one thing, the maturity and worldly wisdom shown by Galois simply does not fit his image as a brash but gifted teenager. For reasons like this, it is fair to say that at places in the novel the biographer overpowers his subject. The following monologue illustrates this point:

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