MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Mind-Body Problem (1983)
Rebecca Goldstein
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
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A philosophy graduate student seduces and marries a famous mathematician. They do not have a great marriage, but we are presented with some thought provoking passages concerning Princeton University, the nature of mathematical "genius", and the power-play of sex in 20th Century America.

I wonder whether the fictional young Harvard number theorist Noam Himmel, who has no Ph.D. and later (see Strange Attractors) is ridiculed by other mathematicians for his theories of the mind, is based on real mathematicians. The author seems to know a lot about the world of mathematics (even though the idea of supernumbers -- so big that no set has that cardinality -- does not quite make sense to me). Does she know about young Harvard number theorist Noam Elkies? Or Andy Gleason (the only research math professor at Harvard without a Ph.D.)? Was she influenced by Roger Penrose and his theory of consciousness?

There are a few great passages about mathematics in this book that should definitely not be ignored by anyone interested in mathematical fiction. Though somewhat stereotypical, as Fusun points out in her comments below, these are well written passages that give the reader much to think about and discuss. For example, on page 28 we hear Noam's response to the question of whether he ever feels stupid:

(quoted from The Mind-Body Problem)

"On the contrary, I very often feel stupid. I often have the experience of not being able to understand what everyone else seems to. Somebody will say something and I'll think, Now what the hell does that mean? That doesn't make any sense. And then someone else will answer and his response is incomprehensible as the first one's statement....Lonely? It's damned lucky. A lucky thing for me that it's been decided the things I can see are the important ones, so I turn out smart instead of stupid. Oh, I think maybe when I was young I was lonely for a while. There weren;t too many other kids interested in playing around with numbers all the time. But I discovered early on that I liked ideas much better than people, and that was the end of my loneliness."

Another interesting passage, from the point of view of the philosophy of mathematics, is the discussion on page 46 of the nature of mathematical discovery. Himmel believes, as do many real mathematicians that I know, that mathematics is a real universe out there somewhere, and that when we discover something new, it is more like the discovery of an ocean explorer than that of an inventor. Also interesting is a long discussion at about page 93 on what it feels like to do math research ("Sometimes I wander round and round in circles, going over the same ground, getting lost, sometimes for hours or days or even weeks....But I know that if I immerse myself in it long enough, things will clarify, simplify. I can count on that. When it happens, it happens fast. Boom ba boom ba boom! One thing after the other, taking the breath away. And then, you know, I feel like I'm walking out in some remote corner of space, where no mortal's ever been, all alone with something beautiful.") and who are the gods and demigods of mathematics.

Contributed by Fusun Akman, Coastal Carolina University

"A graduate student in philosophy marries a world-renowned mathematician. He turns out to be a self-centered (absent-minded?) jerk. Using this as an excuse, she starts whining and fooling around. It supposedly gives us a glimpse of the personalities of mathematicians (among other things): how they think, how they behave, what happens at department parties, and so on. I found it very stereotypical. The mathematics itself is not relevant, except at some point we are given the title of the guy's seminal work: something to do with hypernumbers, or supernumbers. You can tell I didn't like the book, but there it is."

Contributed by Anonymous

"Philosophy grad student Renee is looking for the meaning of life and thinks she might find it with unworldly mathematical genius Noam Himmel. A cruel but quite funny satire on life around an elite math department. Set in Princeton around 1980, many of the characters are supposedly recognisable depictions of real people. For another (non-fiction) view of the same community, check out `A Beautiful Mind', Sylvia Nasar's excellent biography of John Nash."

Contributed by Jeff Gauthier

"It's a common belief among philosophers that Noam is a thinly disguised Saul Kripke, the renowned Princeton philosopher of language (but who studied mathematics)."

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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 The Mind-Body Problem
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
  2. Strange Attractors by Rebecca Goldstein
  3. Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  4. Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
  5. Diary of a Bad Year by John Maxwell Coetzee
  6. After Math by Denise Grover Swank
  7. Nachman from Los Angeles by Leonard Michaels
  8. Properties of Light by Rebecca Goldstein
  9. Continuums by Robert Carr
  10. Eye of the Beholder by Alex Kasman
Ratings for The Mind-Body Problem:
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:
2.33/5 (6 votes)
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Literary Quality:
3.71/5 (7 votes)
..

Categories:
Genre
MotifGenius, Academia, Romance,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)