The joys of mathematics and fiction

Math is the new big thing in fiction. Not only have individual books like «The Parrot’s Theorem,» by Denis Guedj (1998), sold millions of copies around the world, there is a growing number of works of fiction that deal with mathematics in some way. Then there’s the foundation of the group Thales and Friends, and the 40 school reading clubs formed recently in Greece to discuss math and literature. Alex Kasman, who teaches at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, provides useful information about the genre on his website. Every 10 years, the number of works of mathematical fiction increases tenfold. In the 1970s, only 16 works of narrative math were published, in the 1980s that figure rose to 29, and in the 1990s to 68, but so far this decade more than 140 have been published. What exactly is mathematical fiction? Greek mathematician and novelist Tefkros Michailidis, whose «Pythagorean Crimes» came out last year, defines it as any form of fiction in which math plays a decisive role, either as part of the plot or because one of the characters is connected with it and their actions are significantly influenced by that relationship. Michailidis goes on to divide mathematical fiction into three major subcategories: structural (the work of Jorge Luis Borges), experiential (the work of Philibert Schogt and Apostolos Doxiadis), and that where math works as a pretext (the work Denis Guedj and Ian Stewart). Kasman employs a broader definition, and includes works in the genre simply because they refer to math. He lists more than 600 novels, short stories, plays, films and television series, the earliest being Aristophanes’ «Birds» (414 BC), where the geometer Meton tries to measure the air under the mocking eye of the birds. Other works of mathematical fiction include «The Franklin’s Tale» (1390) by Chaucer, «Micromegas» (1752) by Voltaire, «The Gold-Bug» (1843) by Poe, and works by Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Musil and Aldous Huxley. More recently, George Perec, John Banville, Amos Oz, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clark, Umberto Eco and Jeffrey Archer are among those who have contributed to the genre of mathematical fiction. Great appeal Why does mathematical thinking in literature have such a great appeal that algebra and geometry are finding their way into all kinds of narratives, from science fiction and thrillers to historical novels and spy stories? The world of mathematics certainly contains the stuff of high dramatic tension, think of the life and work of Kurt Godel and John Nash. And the history of mathematics resembles the archetypal Western European quest for the Holy Grail. In his book «From Madness to Algorithms» (pub. Ikaros), Doxiadis draws our attention to the fuss that flared up in the late 19th and early 20th century when it was suspected that there were serious problems with the foundation of mathematics. The suspicion was confirmed, but it was also found that five of the 10 people who researched it were mentally ill. Going beyond that myth of the mad mathematician, Doxiadis raises the question: Should we attribute the high proportion of mental illness to the fact that these people lost their reason because they turned to the discipline of pure reason? Or did a pre-existing mental condition impel them to tackle the precarious foundations of the pre-eminent science, the only one that persists in seeking absolute truths since theology has been sidelined? Another reason for the popularity of mathematical fiction is that while mathematics has seen great development over the past two centuries, it has become a victim of its own success, caught up inside its ivory tower. Mathematical fiction is something like a bridge between life and a strict discipline, a means of reconciliation, familiarization and teaching.

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