a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|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:
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:
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.)|
May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the Amazon.com page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)