MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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A Doubter's Almanac (2016)
Ethan Canin
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
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This literary novel follows the life of the fictional mathematical genius Milo Andret from his youth in Michigan, though his education at Berkeley and the winning of a Fields Medal as a Princeton math professor, to his time as a "family man" after his academic career implodes. Through all of this, Milo is a sort of "existential hero" in the sense that one would never want to emulate Milo (he is hateful and pathetic despite his talents), but in watching the way his choices affect his life in ways he neither intends nor understands, the reader learns something about what it is to be a person.

There are many other works of mathematical fiction that this one superficially reminds me of. Like Bonita Avenue, it shows some of the seedy side of the life of a successful math professor. It also shows us the negative consequences of a compulsion to solve a particularly difficult open problem of mathematics as do The Wild Numbers, Goldman's Theorem and Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture.

Because I felt that I had "seen this before", and because the NY Times review was so very negative (mostly because of the way Milo mistreats his many lovers), I did not expect to like it much. However, its beautifully written chapters and intriguing portrayal of math research soon won me over.

Before you jump to conclusions and misunderstand what I mean, let me try to explain.

First, I am in no way excusing Milo Andret's behavior. As the Times review points out "Andret, correctly, calls himself a cad." He behaves appallingly to the women he seduces, his colleagues at work, and his own children. But, I do not believe this reflects poorly on the novel itself. The novel is about a horrible person, a horrible person who readily admits to anyone that he does not care for anyone else, and often does not think highly of himself either. He is not the sort of psychopath who abuses others to his own benefit, since his bad behavior hurts him as well as those around him. Personally, I found it an interesting character study of a person I am glad I do not know in reality.

And, as for the mathematics, I do not want to imply that I know many or even any mathematicians like Milo Andret. But, for a novel with the broad appeal that this one has, the mathematics presented is surprisingly accurate. The author seems to know enough about math to be able to describe some of the real open problems in math, make up a few others (only described vaguely of course), and show how people working on them might make progress. Milo, in particular, is described as being a very talented artist (who happens to have no interest whatsoever in art). This skill, though sometimes useful at parties where he is asked to sketch things for other guests, proves especially useful in helping him to solve problems in geometry and topology that others lacking this ability cannot duplicate. Again, I am not claiming that this is true of anyone I know, only that it is intriguing and believable.

Apparently, we have Jonathan Simon to thank for the mathematical details in the book:

Contributed by Alexandra Alter (New York Times)

He knew next to nothing about topology, so he enlisted the help of Jonathan Simon, a retired math professor specializing in the field, to invent a hypothetical conjecture for Milo to prove. With Mr. Simon’s help, Mr. Canin devised a plausible topology problem about “sub-manifolds of complex projective spaces.”

“Ethan says he doesn’t understand the math, but frankly, he gets more than he lets on,” Mr. Simon said. “He understands the kind of thinking that goes on to do the connecting, and he gets the aesthetic.”

Perhaps Simon was not consulted about the few things that seemed incorrect from a mathematical perspective (such as the idea that a young person would be the winner of the Abel Prize or the inexplicable references to trigonometric functions and ellipses in regard to the trajectory of a projectile).

Interestingly, according to Alter, the character of Milo is actually based on the author, Ethan Canin himself. But, most readers, rather than thinking that they are learning what writers are like, or merely what some people (in any profession) can be like, will probably be left thinking that they have learned something about what mathematicians are like.

Milo is not the only mathematician we meet in the book, and most of the others are nothing like him. One of his professors, who is supposed to be similar in his mathematical ability but is much more likable than Milo, plays an important role near the beginning of the book. His department chair at Princeton describes himself as being good at helping other mathematicians succeed rather than at doing math himself, as is evidenced by his loyal support of Andret. A major subplot involves his rival, a student with whom he competed as an undergraduate and who "steals" the one girlfriend he might actually have feelings for. Both of Andret's children are shown to be mathematically talented, especially his daughter who grows up to be a professor herself. HIs son, who we learn half-way through the book is actually the narrator, becomes an applied mathematician and then a billionaire investor.

There are many misimpressions that I fear this book may leave on a reader. It seems to imply that mathematical ability is inherited, that greatly lauded achievements in mathematics are likely to be wrong because nobody really can verify their proofs, that being a "genius" is a curse, that successful mathematicians are necessarily unpleasant people who have delusions and require treatment with psychoactive medications. I do not believe these would accurately portray the true situation. But, when I put that concern aside and assume readers will be wise enough to avoid making assumptions about reality based on this work of fiction, I have to admit that this is an artfully crafted tale that can be appreciated by those who have no interest in math, and yet also can convey some appreciation for the world of academic mathematics in which it is set.

Note Added February 2017: The latest issue of the AMS Notices includes a review of this novel by Sheldon Axler. Axler makes many interesting observations about the book itself (including a long list of historical inaccuracies). Moreover, Axler's review also includes a brief analysis of the coverage that the book received when it was reviewed in major newspapers.

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com. Amazon.com logo
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to A Doubter's Almanac
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda
  2. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  3. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  4. Goldman's Theorem by R.J. Stern
  5. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  6. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  7. The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall
  8. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  9. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
  10. Continuums by Robert Carr
Ratings for A Doubter's Almanac:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)
.

Categories:
Genre
MotifGenius, Anti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Academia, Proving Theorems, Romance,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Real Mathematics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)