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A Certain Ambiguity

A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel

Gaurav Suri
Hartosh Singh Bal
With a new foreword by Keith Devlin
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    A Certain Ambiguity
    Book Description:

    While taking a class on infinity at Stanford in the late 1980s, Ravi Kapoor discovers that he is confronting the same mathematical and philosophical dilemmas that his mathematician grandfather had faced many decades earlier--and that had landed him in jail. Charged under an obscure blasphemy law in a small New Jersey town in 1919, Vijay Sahni is challenged by a skeptical judge to defend his belief that the certainty of mathematics can be extended to all human knowledge--including religion. Together, the two men discover the power--and the fallibility--of what has long been considered the pinnacle of human certainty, Euclidean geometry.

    As grandfather and grandson struggle with the question of whether there can ever be absolute certainty in mathematics or life, they are forced to reconsider their fundamental beliefs and choices. Their stories hinge on their explorations of parallel developments in the study of geometry and infinity--and the mathematics throughout is as rigorous and fascinating as the narrative and characters are compelling and complex.

    Moving and enlightening,A Certain Ambiguityis a story about what it means to face the extent--and the limits--of human knowledge.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3477-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Mathematics, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Keith Devlin

    In the thirty-eight years since I received my Ph.D. in mathematics and began my career as a “professional mathematician,” my understanding of what mathematics is has changed dramatically. Like most of my colleagues, I was originally attracted to the subject by two features:

    1. Mathematical truth is clean, precise, and forever, making it the purest and most certain form of knowledge there is; and

    2. Discovering that truth is often a significant challenge.

    Note the use of the word “discovering” in my description of the second feature. The early Keith Devlin was, like almost all my young colleagues at the...

  3. Authors’ Note
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER 1
    (pp. 1-31)

    Yesterday I found the calculator my grandfather gave me on my 12th birthday. It had fallen behind the bookcase and I saw it when I was rearranging the study. I had not thought about it for years, yet when I held it, it seemed as familiar as ever. The “I” in Texas Instruments was missing, as it had been for all but two days of its life; the buttons still made a confirming clicking sound when pressed; and when I put in some new batteries, the numbers on the LCD shone through with a blazing greenness, more extravagant than the...

  5. CHAPTER 2
    (pp. 32-62)


    “Ma, it’s Ravi.”

    “Ravi? It’s really early in the morning here. Are you okay?”

    “I’m fine. There is nothing to worry about. But I wanted to talk to you about something important.”

    I could hear her sitting up on the bed. “What’s the matter? Are you okay?” she asked.

    “I’m fine. Ma, you remember that Bauji was in America in 1919?”

    “Yes, he’d gone there from England. I think some professor had invited him because he proved some theorem. Why?”

    “Where in America was he, do you know?”

    “He first went to New York and then to a small...

  6. CHAPTER 3
    (pp. 63-102)

    So concluded Mrs. Ethan Gardener of 37 Parkinson Lane, in a letter to the editor ofThe Morisette Chronicle.

    In the days after the arrest,The Morisette Chroniclewas transformed from a mild New Jersey town newspaper into a tabloid baying for Bauji’s blood. Article after article and letter after letter expressed outrage at what had occurred in the town square. There were reports that the sheriff, in an unprecedented step, had to place armed guards on duty outside the town jail.

    Sunday’s newspaper went a step further and featured interviews with New Jersey’s religious leaders, all of whom thought...

  7. CHAPTER 4
    (pp. 103-128)

    I remember now how impatiently I waited for Adin to finish reading the transcript. But he read with slow deliberation, stopping every once in a while to look away. Every time I thought he might be done he turned a few pages back and reread a section.

    I had left him a message in the morning: “I need to talk to you. It’s about something you can relate to and frankly you’re the only one who might have a perspective on this kind of stuff.”

    When he called back, I was ready for him to fish for details, or at...

  8. CHAPTER 5
    (pp. 129-181)

    Judge Taylor: Good morning Mr. Sahni. I see that the library did indeed send you a copy of Euclid’sElements.

    Vijay Sahni: Yes, they did. It was the first time I have read through Euclid’s theorems the way he actually wrote them, and I must say that it was a wonderful experience. I have been eagerly awaiting your arrival today, for I fear that if I don’t discuss the beauty and wonder of these results with you, I will burst!

    JT: I appreciate your enthusiasm, Mr. Sahni, but let me caution you on our purpose: We are not here to...

  9. CHAPTER 6
    (pp. 182-224)

    The next morning Claire called and invited me over for lunch. I asked if I could come over right away and help her cook, and to my delight, she readily agreed. I took some lentils and spices and biked over to her place. Happily, we worked well together in the kitchen. Despite the tight space we didn’t get in each other’s way and without having a “you do this, I’ll do that” conversation, we seemed to divide the tasks at hand pretty well. Later we feasted on Indian lentils over rice and fresh mint chutney from her herb garden. With...

  10. CHAPTER 7
    (pp. 225-245)

    In the car, Nico asked Adin if, like Bauji’s snake girl, something specific had triggered his interest in “knowing about knowing.” Adin had paused, considering his answer. “I think it happened when I read ‘The Red-Headed League’,” was what he came up with.

    None of us needed to be told that “The Red-Headed League” was a Sherlock Holmes adventure—one of the quirkier exploits of Conan Doyle’s fictional detective. It turned out that Claire, Nico, and I had at various points in our lives been avid Sherlock Holmes fans, but none of us could recount the details of this particular...

  11. CHAPTER 8
    (pp. 246-266)
    John Taylor

    Two days later, in the last class of the semester, Nico said he was going to step out of actual mathematics and discuss the philosophy of mathematics. “Some of you have already been thinking about what mathematical truth means,” he said looking at Adin, “and this is one of the principal topics covered in the philosophy of mathematics.”

    Now, many years later, I distinctly remember Adin in front, leaning forward in anticipation.

    I don’t recall much of the lecture. I kept replaying John Taylor’s words in my head. I finally knew what had appened to Bauji, but what did it...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 267-268)

    Time passes . Decisions get made. Our hand is forced by circumstance, or impulse. We decide, and then we move on; new choices arise, new situations challenge us, and we rush onward to confront them. Our brains have evolved to interpret our decisions and to assign meaning to them.

    So what meaning should I attach to choosing a life of mathematics? Should I tell myself that it represents the reawakening of my mathematical interest, first sparked by Bauji? Or was it driven by a quest to understand the nature of true knowledge? Or was it simply that mathematics meant the...

  13. Notes & (a short) Bibliography
    (pp. 269-280)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 281-281)