Interview: Ethan Canin, Author Of 'A Doubter's Almanac' Author Ethan Canin says two odd talents contributed to his main character becoming a mathematician: He can always tell where he is on Earth and he can draw things perfectly.
NPR logo

In 'Doubter's Almanac,' Troubled Math Genius Tries To Solve The Unsolvable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467093823/467115604" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In 'Doubter's Almanac,' Troubled Math Genius Tries To Solve The Unsolvable

In 'Doubter's Almanac,' Troubled Math Genius Tries To Solve The Unsolvable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467093823/467115604" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to begin this next interview with a puzzle. Put two quarters side-by-side so the ridges mesh like gears. If you hold one still and roll the other all the way around it, how many revolutions will George Washington make? This little riddle appears in the new novel "A Doubter's Almanac." The book follows a troubled math genius through three generations of his family. The author is Ethan Canin, and he joins us now. Welcome.

ETHAN CANIN: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We're going to put the riddle on hold and begin with the opening pages of the novel, where your main character, Milo Andret, is a child. And he creates something just extraordinary out of a fallen tree. Describe what this thing is.

CANIN: Well, this is - he's a kid growing up in the woods of northern Michigan, kind of a lonely kid in these lonely woods. And a giant beech tree falls over one night in a storm, and he goes out there, looks at it and gets this idea that he could whittle a chain out of the wood.

SHAPIRO: And to make a chain out of a fallen tree, you can't do link by link. It has to be all interlinked, and you just take away everything but the chain.

CANIN: Yeah, and that's what this guy does. He spends the entire summer building this unbuildable thing, whittling this unwhittlable (ph) chain. And it becomes a metaphor for what he does with the rest of his life, really, which is try to solve the unsolvable problem.

SHAPIRO: Did you think, inevitably, this kind of insight carries with it - you know, as one character puts it in the book, psychosis and inventiveness exist on a sort of continuum.

CANIN: Yeah, one can't help noticing that. Mathematicians don't like it when they're associated with mental illness and sort of bristle when say that they can't get along socially, that they're not good with people. But looking around the world, I think it seems to be fairly true.

SHAPIRO: Although there's a big difference between not great with people, can't get along socially and your character, who really, I mean, is, you know, for lack of a better word, cursed. He fights addiction. He fights the people in his life, and it passes down through generations.

CANIN: Yeah. If you're concentrating so damn hard on a piece of mathematics or a musical - a piece of music or a piece of art, the restraint that holds the rest of - the rest of the world back off and vanishes in the rest of your life. So that's - I think that's maybe some explanation for why there's a lot of that trouble in those who try the difficult thing. It's the old Icarus story.

SHAPIRO: You know, as you talk about difficult things and works of art, one's mind might go to novelists.

CANIN: Yeah, you noticed that.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So...

CANIN: Yeah, it sure felt like I was - yeah, it sure felt - I mean, there were times in the - I mean, you don't have to look too far in history to see novelists who've had a hard time with this art, and it is an excruciating art. I mean, trying to invent 600, 700, 800 pages of the story - even to get - to have the characters have the same name at the end that they had at the beginning. That's an achievement. It's a difficult thing. And, you know - sure, of course. You know, this guy happened to be a mathematician, but he could've been a writer. He could've been anything.

SHAPIRO: There's a section in the book that I think captures how Milo Andret's mind works, although this is actually his son speaking, who is also a mathematician. This is on page 498. Will you read this section?

CANIN: Sure. (Reading) A mathematician goes to great lengths to define things. A plane in mathematics is not merely a flat surface, but a flat surface of infinite thinness in size. Trivial? Not to us. When I say plane, I'm not thinking of a tabletop or a sheet of glass or a piece of paper. You might point to any one of these objects, but all of them are precisely that - objects. They exist in the world, and because they do, they're defined by their breadth and reach. To a mathematician, a tabletop in more a plane than a slice of rum cake might be. In the world we know, in fact, the only thing that can actually be called a plane - or a portion of one, anyway - is a shadow. You see? Words fail us. Even the world fails us.

SHAPIRO: That line feels so tragic.

CANIN: Yeah, it's a tragic moment in the book. I also have to say, you know, as one of these things - reading about this mathematics as I was researching this book - I mean, I loved that. A shadow, in fact, is a plane. That kind of knocked me over when I - when I read that. That's right. It has no size. It has no shape. It has no size. It has no boundary. I mean, I suppose it has a boundary, but it's interesting. It is not an object, yet it is - yet it's - you can see it. That's what a plane is. I also was knocked over by some of these puzzles, like that quarter puzzle you mentioned. Gosh, I think about that, and I still can't really understand why that is true.

SHAPIRO: I can't either. Should we give listeners the answer to the quarter puzzle?

CANIN: Well, I wish I had two quarter on me, you know? Who carries change anymore?

SHAPIRO: I did it with two quarters, and I saw it happen, but I still couldn't wrap my mind around it. So just to remind listeners, you put two quarter side-by-side so the ridges mesh like gears. Hold one still. Roll the other all the way around it. And, Ethan Canin, how many revolutions does George Washington make?

CANIN: Well, come on, every smart person in the world with say one, right?

SHAPIRO: Right, I thought it was one. It's not one.

CANIN: You think that because the circumference of one coin just matches the circumference of the other, right? But it's not.

SHAPIRO: What's the answer?

CANIN: It goes around twice, right? And you can prove that by taking two quarters out of your pocket. It's hard to - you can't do that with iPay or Apple Pay, whatever you call it. But if you actually have two quarters...

SHAPIRO: I can do that with two quarters, and I can see George Washington make two revolutions, and I still can't comprehend it.

CANIN: I am the same way. That puzzle puzzles the daylights out of me. It's fantastic.

SHAPIRO: Ethan Canin's new book is called "A Doubter's Almanac." Thank you so much for joining us.

CANIN: Ari, a pleasure.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.