Beach Books---And Much, Much MoreJuly 25, 2004
The mathematical sciences turn up in fiction in all sorts of ways. Now and then, a mathematician writes a novel; examples include Christos Papadimitriou's Turing: A Novel About Computation (2003) and Philip Davis's "Thomas Gray" books, beginning with Thomas Gray: Philosopher Cat (1988). More often, but still not all that often, mathematicians turn up as the protagonists of novels; Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Rough Strife), William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach), and Rebecca Goldstein (The Mind-Body Problem) are among the writers who have created such characters.
Barry Cipra, an aficionado of books of both types, called recently to recommend On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction: Stories, by Karl Iagnemma, a mechanical engineer at MIT whose fiction features mathematical and scientific characters. Asked for details, Cipra mentioned an easy way to check things out: Just go to the "Mathematical Fiction" Web site.
Wonderful advice! A project of College of Charleston mathematician Alex Kasman, the Web site (http://math.cofc.edu/faculty/kasman/MATHFICT/default.html) lists more than 400 works of mathematical fiction-predominantly novels and science fiction, with a smattering of plays and movies. You can view the list by title or author, or by year of publication; the first entry, The Birds, by Aristophanes, is dated 414 BC, and the most recent, Apostolos Doxiadis's play Incompleteness, appeared this year. (Doxiadis is among the mathematician/authors of fiction; Philip Davis reviewed his novel Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture in the April 2000 issue of SIAM News.)
Other works on the list have been featured in SIAM News as well, including Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, reviewed by Barry Cipra in the May 2001 issue. Asked how he got started on his Web project, Kasman mentions Cryptonomicon, which he read as a postdoc at MSRI. "This book presents the history of logic and the mathematics that was to become computer science in an extremely positive light," he says. "Not only did it seem to give mathematics the credit for the Allied victory in World War II, it practically deified Alan Turing. I realized that this could be useful propaganda for me, an aspiring mathematics professor, in trying to provide my students with an appreciation for mathematics."
Influencing the way people think about mathematicians continues to motivate Kasman in what he says "has become a very time-consuming hobby for me!" Unfortunately, he points out, many fictional mathematicians are insane. "Also common is the notion that mathematicians are cold and unfeeling and fear anything which is not 100% certain. Being mathematicians ourselves, we may be interested in these portrayals, and we ought to be aware of them so that we can work to counteract these negative stereotypes."
But this is to neglect the positive side of Kasman's interest: He simply enjoys fictional accounts of mathematics and mathematicians. In this vein, he offers SIAM News a few personal selections: "The mystery novel After Math presents a humorous and biting but generally accurate look at the social activities in a math department. The British novel Paradox, which I just finished reading, is a science fiction novel in which the mathematics does not make too much sense . . . but it is still a pleasure to see a hero triumph, in part, through his mathematical ability." He also recommends mathematical fiction as a way to learn about historical figures, such as Sonya Kovalevsky in Beyond the Limit.
Not surprisingly, Kasman himself is a mathematician/author. His short story "Unreasonable Effectiveness" was published in Math Horizons, and he describes the running theme of a forthcoming collection of stories, titled Reality Conditions, as "the relationship between pure and applied mathematics."
Kasman points out on the Web site that he has made no effort to distinguish between "math in fiction" and "fictional mathematics." And when in doubt, he explains, he would rather include a book that doesn't belong than exclude one that does.
The list is fun to look at. Unexpected names jump out: Donald Knuth, Ralph P. Boas, Jr., Ian McEwan (for an early (1970) story, titled "Solid Geometry"), along with a wealth of ideas for future exploration. Happy reading! And if you come across a work that's not on the list, Kasman would be happy to hear about it (firstname.lastname@example.org).