cover image The Phantom Scientist

The Phantom Scientist

Robin Cousin, trans. from the French by Edward Gauvin. MIT, $24.95 (128p) ISBN 978-0-26204-786-9

An elusive scientist claims to solve a landmark mathematical problem and then vanishes in Cousin’s intrigue-laden academic thriller. Scientists from assorted disciplines pursue independent research at the Institute for the Study of Complex and Dynamic Systems. The Institute is itself an ongoing experiment, a dynamic system gradually cycling “toward entropy and chaos,” which new residents are selected to rebalance. The Institute’s director, Mr. Sorokin, hopes the program’s latest arrival, Stéphane Douasy, proves a calming ballast, otherwise, Sorokin may be forced to terminate the program. Upon his arrival, Stéphane, along with lab neighbors, investigates the enigmatic figure of the title, Vinaiy Paniandy, a secretive computer scientist claiming to have solved the momentous “P vs. NP” problem, which presupposes the existence of an algorithm capable of “solving any problem that has a valid solution.” Cousin doesn’t shy from technical exposition, but tackles theory with a gamer’s sense of play. Indeed, the Fibonacci sequence of hexagons that maps the Institute’s woodland campus evokes the board game Settlers of Catan, while the squat, stylized character drawings vaguely resemble video game avatars. Cousin adroitly balances an accessible introduction to systems theory with a smart, well-paced mystery, animated by the very concepts he endeavors to explain. To combine mystery and a math comic, it’s an elegant solution. (Feb.)