S.S. van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright)
Highly Rated!
Our hero, Vance, says at the end of this mystery novel: "At the outset I was able to postulate a mathematician as the criminal agent. The difficulty of naming the murderer lay in the fact that nearly evey possible suspect was a mathematician." (In fact, most of the victims in the serial killings known as the "Bishop murders" are mathematicians too!)
Any fan of mathematical fiction has to check out this murder mystery, first published in 1929. Due to the bizarre clues and references to nursery rhymes left by the murderer, a series of killings in the house of a senior mathematics professor at Columbia University attract the attention of the public and of private investigator Philo Vance. Since the victims and suspects are almost all mathematicians, there is a lot of math discussed in the book. Most of it is mathematical physics (quantum and relativistic, discussed with some serious sophistication for a novel written in 1929, IMHO!) and also a bit of the mathematics of chess. It is a bit disturbing that the book seems to imply that the only serious mathematics is mathematical physics, but perhaps it did seem that way to some people in the 20's.
One of the clues is a torn piece of paper with formulas involving the Riemann-Christoffel tensor. (It looks strange because it is typed on a manual typewriter...but it is supposed to.) The mere fact that this note is found at the scene of a murder is not only an indication that the murderer is a mathematician, it is even the particular notation used that turns out to be somewhat significant.
The most interesting thing to me was the long lecture from Vance
(beginning on page 269 in my book) in which he explains how doing
mathematics can drive you crazy. In fact, the murders themselves are
the result of years of math research on the poor mind of the murderer!
He says
(quoted from The Bishop Murder Case)
In order to understand these crimes...we must consider the
stock-in-trade of the mathematician, for all his speculations and
computations tend to emphasize the relative insignificance of this
planet and the unimportance of human life...He deals in abstruse and
apparently contradict'ry speculations which the average mind can not
even grasp. He lives in a realm where time, as we know it, is without
meaning save as a fiction of the brain, and becomes a fourth
coordinate of three-dimensional space; where distance is also
meaningless except for neighboring points, since there are an infinite
number of shortest routes between any two given points...In this realm
of the modern mathematician, curves exist without tangents. Neither
Newton nor Leibnitz nor Bernoulli even dreamed of a continuous curve
without a tangent -- that is, a continuous function without a
differential co-efficient. Indeed, no one is able to picture such a
contradiction -- it lies beyond the power of imagination. And yet, it
is a commonplace of modern mathematics to work with curves that have
no tangents...[Now he relates some of the odder features of general
relativity.] These are not paradoxes of logic,...they're only
paradoxes of feeling. Mathematics accounts for them logically and
scientifically. The point I'm trying to make is that things which seem inconsistent and even absurd to the lay mind are commonplaces to the mathematical intelligence. [And now the point:] Is it surprising...that a man dealing in such colossal, incommensurable concepts...might in time lose all sense of relative values...? ...In his heart he would scoff at all human values, and sneer at the littleness of the visual things about him."
Lots of twists and turns make this book a fun read. (Just don't take the comments about math turning people into murderers too seriously. Very few of the mathematicians that I know are murderers.)
Tons of thanks to Sandro
Caparrini (Torino, Italy) for pointing this one out to me!
There is a film version of this book, staring Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance. Having been made in 1930, it is one of the early "talkies". In fact, the NY Times movie review brags
Contributed by
NY Times, 2/1/1930
This film is another instance of the progress made in sound, for it is a production in which one follows the words with little or no thought being given to the mechanical device. Moreover, this occasionally spine-chilling narrative is in the hands of thoroughly competent players, who evidently know their lines as well as they would were they on the stage.
However, it also makes the movie a bit hard to watch as the actors all completely ham it up. For a sample, see this preview:
Contributed by
c w f
For anyone interested in relativity theory and convoluted detective stories, this "takes the biscuit."
Contributed by
Chris
Mathematically, I rank quite low so I can not comment on that part of the content. However, I like the 1930 film with Basil Rathbone as Vance, and you can see it on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. In fact I've just requested they show it again, on their website; I shall re-read my paperback for the math. Thanks.
Contributed by
Sandro Caparrini
Dear Alex,
Look what I’ve found: the great physicist Dirac talking about mathematical mysteries! Here it is:
“I shall mention just one example to illustrate the sort of enthusiasm that prevailed. In a detective story called The Bishop Murder Case, an important clue was provided by a piece of paper on which some of the Einstein equations were written down. The theory of relativity was woven into the plot of the story, with the result that the book had a big sale. All the young people were reading it. That shows you the tremendous excitement that pervaded all fields of thought. It has never happened before or since in the history of science that a scientific idea has been so much caught up by the public and has produced so much enthusiasm and excitement.”
The above quotation is taken from an article about the growing popularity of the theory of relativity during the 1920s:
P. A. M. Dirac, The Early Years of Relativity, in Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives (Princeton University Press, 1982), 79-90.
A few remarks:
1. The “Einstein equations” referred to by Dirac are the Bianchi identities, discovered by the Italian mathematician Luigi Bianchi (1856-1928). Contracting the Bianchi identities, one gets the Einstein tensor, the essential ingredient for the field equations of General relativity.
2. While the characters in the book talk about relativity, this is not really part of the plot.
3.The book was published in 1929. This means that probably Dirac read it when he was busy creating his mathematical version of quantum theory.
Merry Christmas
Sandro
(now in Lille, France)
Contributed by
Alex
It has just come to my attention that a free, electronic version of the book (in plain text format) is available from Project Gutenberg. See, for example, this Australian mirror site. Moreover, a nicely typeset version is available through GoodReads.com. Isn't the Internet wonderful?
Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com.
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