MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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My Heart Belongs to Bertie (2018)
Helen DeWitt
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This short story, which appears in the anthology "Some Trick: Thirteen Stories by Helen DeWitt" features an academic turned author arguing with a literary agent who wants him to include less math in his follow-up to a very successful children's book featuring robots.

This story seems to have been very well received by literary critics and literati who understandably see it as being about conflicts in the publishing industry. In addition, it does contain a lot of mathematics (mostly in the form of explanations of the binomial distribution, some R code, and plots of binomial probability distribution functions). It is a work of mathematical fiction about mathematical fiction. So, I would like to like it. However, the truth is that I find it very disturbing.

In a (much cited) footnote at the end of the story, the author explains that her motivation for writing it was a comment from a friend who said "we rarely see fiction that shows the way mathematicians think". Now, anyone who has browsed my database knows that there are more works of fiction about mathematicians than is generally imagined. But, what really bothers me is DeWitt's conception of "the way mathematicians think"!

This story is told from the viewpoint of a mathematician who seems overly obsessed with the fact that he left the axis labels off of his graphs. He insists that the agent wear a yellow sweater to their meeting in a diner because he is worried that otherwise he won't be able to recognize the agent when he returns from a trip to the bathroom. He is delusional in that he hears the voices of robots talking to him. In fact, he gets so caught up in his conversation with those robots that he loses track of time and realizes only after several hours have passed that he abruptly left his briefcase and the agent in the diner without explaining where he was going.

In other words, he displays many of the anti-social and mentally unstable characteristics of a stereotypical fictional mathematician. I find this quite disturbing in a character that was designed to represent all mathematicians because, believe it or not, that is not what real mathematicians are like. Of course, I can't say that no mathematicians are anti-social or that none of them have mental disorders. Just like people in any other profession, some of them have each of those traits. Perhaps it is even true that the rates of those characteristics are slightly higher among mathematicians, though I have never seen any actual evidence to support that prejudice. Nevertheless, I think I can say with certainty that most mathematicians are not like the character presented in this story who the author claims was created to "show the way that mathematicians think".

Let me pause here to point out that real people make the logical mistake of concluding that actual mathematicians are like the portrayals they see of insane mathematicians in fiction. As evidence, I recall this anecdote about the film A Beautiful Mind:

Contributed by Alex Kasman

For instance, a neighbor mentioned that she thought of me when she saw [the movie A Beautiful Mind]. "Now," she said to me, "I have a better idea of how your mind works." Don't forget that this is a film about a man so crazy that he must be forceably hospitalized and almost drowns his own baby! Unfortunately, as these comments make perfectly clear, the conclusion that many viewers reach after watching this movie is that anyone who is good at doing math must be completely crazy.

In the middle of the story, the author digresses into a discussion of the minstrels wearing blackface as extreme exaggerations of the racist stereotypes believed by white audiences. Such portrayals are rightfully considered unacceptable in society today. I'm not sure if the author recognizes the similarity between that and what she is doing here. Regardless of how well-written it may be or how much I agree with the author's viewpoint on the value of probability, this exaggerated stereotype of a mathematician is equally unacceptable to me.

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(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 My Heart Belongs to Bertie
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Cryptology by Leonard Michaels
  2. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  3. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  4. Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby
  5. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  6. Elegantly, In the Least Number of Steps by Monica McFawn
  7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  8. The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
  9. Book of Knut: a novel by Knut Knudson by Halvor Aakhus
  10. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Ratings for My Heart Belongs to Bertie:
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)
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Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)
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Categories:
Genre
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Autism,
TopicProbability/Statistics,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)