MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz (1997)
Irene Dische
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Like many other mathematicians in fiction (and in real life too?), the protagonist in this novel is brilliant when it comes to calculations but has difficulty with the most commonplace examples of human interaction. When Dr. Benedikt von Wallerstein, whose social inabilities are none-too-subtley reflected in his choice of research subject, learns that he is dying of a terminal disease, he decides it is time to end his solitude and adopt a child. In fact, he ends up "adopting" an entire family when he adopts a Russian boy accompanied by his pianist mother.

Mathematical aside:: In the real world of mathematics there is an object known as a soliton. Solitons are a special class of solutions to non-linear wave equations that are of interest for several reasons, but perhaps the easiest one to state is that they behave like particles in the sense that when two "humps" of the wave come together, they separate again into to humps of the same heights, usually also having suffered a "phase shift" which can be interpreted as the humps having bounced off of each other. Most of the interest in these solitons, however, comes from the surprising facts that these solutions to non-linear equations can be combined and written explicitly as well as the fact that many macroscopic phenomena in the real world can be explained and studied in terms of solitons. For purposes of disclosure, I guess I should mention that some of my own reasearch concerns solitons!

With that having been said, let me quote the novel:

(quoted from Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz)

The mathematician was studying the solitron, a particle that is by definition always on its own. Dr. Waller's theory was that when one solitron collided with another, each particle remained unaffected. He had spent the past years banging solitrons against each other on the computer, until he had infinite rolls of paper showing the following drama: the solitrons approached each other, collided, separated. During the collision, spikes formed. But short of this, nothing happened. They emerged from the collision with their curves intact, not a millimetre changed.

Obviously, this description was inspired by the soliton, and I can't help but being bothered by it. For one thing, it sure makes the research of a mathematician seem lame. Just banging these "particles" together on a computer, over and over, is hardly a good example of math research. I find the slightly modified name "solitron" bothersome too, although I guess it is better than if she had called them solitons without acknowledging the fact that solitons do interact (the "bounce" is an example). [Note added later: I have learned that the original name for solitons chosen by the mathematicians Kruskal and Zabusky who discovered them was "solitrons", but that the name was changed to avoid conflicts with a company that made a product called "solitrons".] As a mathematical physicist I am also bothered that she seems to imply that particles which do not interact with each other would be a surprising thing, while this is actually what we expect in the case of large classes of particles (bosons, such as photons, for example, can pass right through each other without any effect.) But mostly I am bothered by the obviousness of the metaphor. He works on solitary particles that are unaffected by contact with other particles, and he lives his life as a solitary many unaffected by contact with other people. (Perhaps literary critics did not like this either, since I was unable to find this 4 year old book even mentioned on the Amazon website and the review in the NYT -- see link above -- was not entirely positive.)

I did kind of enjoy the scene in which Waller writes to the editor of the Annals of Physics and receives a response in poor English. On the following page we have the almost ubiquitous literary jab at mathematicians as unable to appreciate the difference between reality and total abstraction:

(quoted from Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz)

`Dr Waller and Dr Graf,' the young teacher had interrupted politely, `the particles are just theoretical, a computer model. If we understand correctly, two waves rolling towards each other, they don't really exist. But the way you are talking about them...'

Dr. Graf had been sitting at his desk waving the computer printouts at Dr Waller and trying to ignore the young people. He always behaved as if students were a plague sent by God to test his endurance. Up to that point he had pretedned they weren't even in the room. Suddenly he turned on them, on their teacher. `Just theoretical, you say? So what's the difference? you'll ask next. Does a character in a novel exist? As soon as a character exists in the reader's mind, then he exists -- in fact he exists far more than, say, my grandmother, who you Germans decided had no right to exist and who I no longer remember. by the way' -- he addressed Schmidt directly -- `one of your shirt buttons is undone. You'll catch cold.' Then he turned back to his calculations.

Some name dropping occurs when a woman who claims to have been Einstein's maid comes by looking for a job. She repeats the claim, popular in some circles, that it was actually Einstein's wife who made the most important contributions.

Perhaps I'm not the best person to judge this book, since I respond to the portrayal of mathematics and `solitrons' as if they were personal insults. (Of course, I know they are not personal, and the author has every right to write this sort of novel, but it makes it difficult for me to enjoy reading it.) If someone can write a more positive review to include here, I would be happy to do so.

More information about this work can be found at www.nytimes.com.
(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 Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) by Yoko Ogawa
  2. Tigor (aka The Snowflake Constant) by Peter Stephan Jungk
  3. Nachman Burning by Leonard Michaels
  4. Towel Season by Ron Carlson
  5. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
  6. Nachman at the Races by Leonard Michaels
  7. According to the Law by Solvej Balle
  8. Of Mystery There Is No End by Leonard Michaels
  9. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  10. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
Ratings for Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
Genre
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Math as Cold/Dry/Useless, Romance,
TopicMathematical Physics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)