MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Arcadia (1993)
Tom Stoppard
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!

Stoppard's critically successful play includes long discussions of topics of mathematical interest including: Fermat's Last Theorem and Newtonian determinism, iterated algorithms, the second law of thermodynamics, Fourier's heat equation, and chaos theory

In the historical portion of the play, we follow teenage math genius Thomasina Coverly as she uncovers the secrets of the universe. Although she does not prove Fermat's Last Theorem (which she tries to do), she does discover fractal geometry and the eventual "heat death" of the universe from monotonic increasing nature of entropy...all in 1809! In the contemporary portion of the play, a mathematical biologist studying chaotic population dynamics lives in the same house that Thomasina had occupied almost 200 years earlier.

The Scientific American review of this play is here. Ivars Peterson's comments about the math in this play are here and the MSRI video with scenes from the play and a discussion with Stoppard can be purchased here

Although most of the reviews I have seen for Arcadia have been entirely positive, one anonymous contributor to this site wrote to tell me that...

Contributed by Anonymous

....the ideas discussed are not new - being found in many works of population science and scientific commentary. It will date quickly. As drama, it is close to empty: where is the dramatic tension? where would the play be without the references to sex and illicit liaisons? And is it not all-too-predictable (and saleable) that the young female genius is portrayed as desperate to seduce her tutor and, dear oh dear what a tragedy, perishes in a tragic conflagration.

More recently, I have received this "rebuttal" from an anonymous director:

Contributed by Anonymous

The anonymous critic who described the play as dramatically empty was woefully missing the point and, I would suggest, not used to appreciating theatre of this quality. As an actor, theatre director and one time student of mathematics and philosophy, I have to redress the balance by rating Arcadia as on of the finest theatrical works of this century. I am surprised that anyone who saw the original production at the National Theatre could not have been moved by it. I cannot vouch for lesser productions and interpretations.

Contributed by Slickear

While in college I played the role of Septimus in Arcadia. As I suspected, the performance received mixed reviews. The show is obviously written for those have an unconventionally curious mind. As an actor, it was by far the most well written, enigmatic, subtle and, yet, complex role I have ever had the pleasure of performing. The show opened up a world of interests that rapidly became `underground' hobbies and I would highly recommend it to fellow curious minds.

Contributed by David Love

I was a math major taking a literary interpretation class for fun when I met Arcadia. As math major, former English major, and someone who has been active in many parts of the theatre, this play holds much for me to enjoy. What I enjoy most though is not only is mathematics discussed in the play, mathematcs is also central to the play thematically. In fractal geometry, every part of the graph is a copy of another level of the graph.Or, the graph looks similar to itsef no matter how far you "zoom in". This similarity between iterations is shown in the two generations in the house and the fact that time itself collapses in the last scene. This is one of my favorie plays of all time!

Contributed by Thomas J. McGuire

The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (http://www.msri.org/) invited Stoppard to visit in 1999. At one public event, Robert Osserman and Stoppard discussed math, theatre, etc. amidst a few bits of the play. Search their web page for further infomation, including a video of the event.

Contributed by Anonymous

A wonderful and inspiring piece of mathematical/scientific theatre.

Contributed by Miguel Ángel Mirás Calvo

I can only wish that it had been written in Spanish...

Contributed by Kimber Amweg

We just finished reading Arcadia in class, and it is a great play! I just wish we could find a filmed version, since I think that seeing this play would make it that much better. I like the complexity and the fact that the work itself resembles a fractal (whether or not the author intended this).

Contributed by Rachel Barkley

The format that Stoppard utilizes in writing about two time periods contributes to the notion that perhaps Arcadia is a fractal itself, separated by the 4th dimension. Both the characters and the settings mirror one another in the past and present. Not only does this play reveal a struggle between science and mathematics but also between reason and chaos in a transitional time period between the Enlightenment and the Renaissance.

Often in the play, issues between determinism and free will also arise in conversations between the characters in both time periods. In paralleling people to equations, iteration makes sense for both. Essentially, people make decisions that lead to results that lead to more decisions. Stoppard seems to convey that time repeats itself, like a monkey at a typewriter who is bound to type the same thing twice. Septimus even says that we are like travellers who pick up what others have left behind.

Readers will surely ponder these questions after having read Arcadia.

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com. Amazon.com logo
(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 Arcadia
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarías
  2. The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem by Rinne Groff
  3. Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
  4. Fermat's Last Tango by Joanne Sydney Lessner / Joshua Rosenblum
  5. Completeness by Itamar Moses
  6. Mathematics of the Heart by Kefi Chadwick (playwright) / Donnacadh O’Briain (director)
  7. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  8. Tenet by Lorne Campbell / Sandy Grierson
  9. A Higher Geometry by Sharelle Byars Moranville
  10. The Fairytale of the Completely Symmetrical Butterfly by Dietmar Dath
Ratings for Arcadia:
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:
3.8/5 (32 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4.48/5 (35 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifProdigies, Cool/Heroic Mathematicians, Academia, Female Mathematicians, Future Prediction through Math, Romance,
TopicMathematical Physics, Chaos/Fractals,
MediumPlays,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)