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Good Benito (1994)
Alan P. Lightman
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors) and literati.

This novel presents many instances in the life of mathematical physicist Bennett Lang, the "Benito" of the title. The different scenes, presented non-chronologically, cover most of his life from early childhood through early middle-age.

The first sequence, just after he gets his first job as an assistant professor at a small college, is one of those most likely to be of interest as "mathematical fiction". We learn that he has been hired in part to befriend an older, brilliant physicist in the department who never publishes his work. Once he does, it is his (nearly impossible) task to look through the file cabinets of formulas written on scraps of paper, restaurant placemats, and shopping lists to try produce some publishable papers in the end. The older professor has some interesting viewpoints, such as that all communication in scientific discourse should be entirely mathematical, since words are too ambiguous. He also doesn't care if his discoveries are already known by others or if they will never be known by others...he just finds them for his own enjoyment.

Another bit of "mathematics" comes into this work of fiction when Bennett first encounters algebra in school. He loves it, but only when it is "applied". He says, in particular, that he didn't like algebra questions in which the variables are not given some real world significance (like the age of a girl as related to the age of her brother). Perhaps, since I am a so-called "pure" mathematician I cannot fully appreciate it, but I found myself wishing I could debate this point with the character (or with the author?). I mean, part of what I like about mathematics when presented abstractly is that it is even more useful since you are actually solving lots of different "real world" problems all at the same time.

Finally, we also get quite a bit of discussion of the mathematical aspects of his graduate work (in theoretical physics). One of the things I always tell my students about is the feeling of making a new discovery before you tell anyone else, when you are the only person in the world who knows it. While taking a shower, Bennett solves a math problem concerning equilibrium solutions of dynamical systems that had been troubling him for months and this feeling of "being the only one who knows" is described.

Of course, there is more to the story than just these three parts. We learn about his childhood caretaker, his rabbi, his loves, his niece, his friends and more. Altogether, it is an opportunity to "get to know" a fictional character who has had an interesting, though not especially exciting life. If there was an overall point to the novel, other than getting to know Bennett, then I missed it.

The author is a professor at MIT and is best known for his earlier novel "Einstein's Dreams".

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Works Similar to Good Benito
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Book of Getting Even by Benjamin Taylor
  2. Strange Attractors by Rebecca Goldstein
  3. Tigor (aka The Snowflake Constant) by Peter Stephan Jungk
  4. The Tolman Trick by Manil Suri
  5. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  6. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  7. Feigenbaum Number by Nancy Kress
  8. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  9. Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby
  10. Final Exam by Robert Dawson
Ratings for Good Benito:
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:
4.4/5 (5 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.25/5 (4 votes)

MotifInsanity, Academia, Math Education,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Mathematical Physics,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)