He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury some 17 years ago, he has lived with only 80minutes of short-term memory.
She is a sensitive but astute young housekeeper, a single mother with a 10-year old son, whom the professor called root, nick named Root because of his flat top head that resembles the square root sign.
Each morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. The professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant mathematical equations from the past. He start each day by asking her shoe size and her birthday. He devises clever maths riddles. For example his wrist watch bears the engraved number of President’s Prize 284 and the Housekeeper’s birth date is February the 22nd (220):
220: 1+ 2 + 4 + 5 +10 +11 + 20+ 22 + 44 + 55 + 110 = 284
220 = 142 + 71 + 4 + 2 + 1 : 284
The sum of factors of 220 is 284, the sum of the factors of 284 is 220. The pair is called Amicable numbers. As the relationship of the professor and the housekeeper is amicable, as if both of them are connected up the constellations of the night sky.
The Professor’s fascination with the prime numbers in all their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her little boy. With each new equation, the three souls forge affection more mysterious than imaginary numbers, and a bond that runs deeper than memory. The bond fortifies through incidents of a day-out at the baseball game, the crisis of Root cutting his own risk, Professor falling sick after the game, a trip to the dentist and the barber, and a birthday celebration of Root.
The book introduced many mathematical and numerical theories. The concept of zero, the triangle numbers, the factors, the prime numbers, Fermat’s last theorem, calculating the weight and speed of baseball trajectory and home runs. I must admit I don’t understand all of them. In school, I have a love-hate relationship with Maths. I am a big fan of certain Maths topics and can’t stand some. I love calculus, algebra, angles and trigonometry. Looking back now and reflect that majority of the maths I learnt, I came to the awful realisation that none of it bears any practical significance and application to my daily lives. But the book introduces us to the wonders of mathematics, its place in the universal truth. As it is said:
The goal of mathematics is to discover the truth.
Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, you won’t find them in material things and natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.
How true. When I solve a maths question, I have great sense of peace. If I don’t, it bugs me endlessly until I solved it. The quest for eternal truth is ingrained. No other things can prove the wonders of truth like numbers sometimes. When a maths solution is revealed, I am always filled with wonders and awe.
The only thing that befuddled me was the question “Who discovered zero?” – refer page 140. The Professor said it was an unknown Indian. But I thought it was an Arab who discovered it. The Arabic name of zero was Sifr. Curiosity killed the cat, I checked Wikipedia and I am able to clarify now that:
In 976 Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Khwarizmi, in his Keys of the Sciences, remarked that if, in a calculation, no number appears in the place of tens, a little circle should be used “to keep the rows.” This circle the Arabs called sifr. The word “zero” came via French zéro from Venetian zero, which (together with cipher) came via Italian zefiro from Arabic صفر, ṣafira = “it was empty”, ṣifr = “zero”, “nothing”.
The concept of zero as a number and not merely a symbol for separation is attributed to India where by the 9th century CE practical calculations were carried out using zero, which was treated like any other number, even in case of division.
Most early civilisations recognises “nothingness”. But it was the Arabs who discovered it, and the Indians who used it as numbers. That’s sorted. Now I know the truth. 🙂
This is not a romance book, rather it’s a simple story about three unlikely people sharing a strong bond. Ogawa prose is simple, matter-of-factly, unassuming, telling the story as it is. All the characters have no names. The story is told in the eyes of the Housekeeper. I did not realise I was deeply invested with the characters until the Housekeeper was accused by the Professor’s sister-in-law of having ulterior motive to take good care of the professor, out of her obligation and agency contract to do so. I was deeply saddened by the fact that of all the good memories that the Housekeeper and son, Root have with the Professor, none of it will be remembered because of the Professor’s short memory. Yet these memories were an important part of the Housekeeper’s and the Son’s lives.
This is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present and about the curious equations that can create a family where one did not exist before. There is no big action, big bang or dramatic plot. But a quiet reflection and awakenings of things that are left unsaid.