a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|This long novel from the author of Cryptonomicon does for 17th Century mathematics what that earlier novel did for the 20th century. Namely, it deifies some great historical mathematicians (this time it is Leibniz and Newton instead of Turing), and presents the history of mathematics and the world from the viewpoint of someone primarily interested in computers and the modern "information age".
This is not a complaint, only a description. It is sort of funny (perhaps intentionally so) to see these characters in 18th Century Massachussetts in the context of the history of computer science. Certainly, Leibniz (more than Newton) had a role to play in this history...but it was a very small role, and one that was probably not nearly so obvious at the time as this book makes it seem.
For instance, when we meet Daniel Waterhouse (presumably the anscestor of mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse from Stephenson's Cryptonomicon), he is the sole faculty member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tecknological Institute occupying a small cabin in a field of mud. There he is working on using binary numbers to catalog book titles in a way that will be understandable to a mechanical logic machine. [The idea doesn't make much sense, since "decoding" a catalog number would involve prime factorization of large numbers which is exceedingly difficult. But, maybe it was just meant as a joke.] Enoch Root (yes, I think we are to believe that this is the same mystical Enoch Root who appears hundreds of years later in Cryptonomicon) argues that all of these ideas are stolen from Leibniz's work with only slight modifications, proposes that someday, this small school might be a large university, with domed buildings on the Charles River filled with automated logic machines! (Of course, Stephenson, who went to Boston University, is making reference here to today's Massachusetts Institute of Technology...he even toys with the rivalry between MIT and Harvard.)
The "fight" between Leibniz and Newton over the ownership of the important mathematical discoveries that we today call "calculus" plays a central role in the plot, and numerous mathematical references (e.g. the tendency to refer to even nonmathematical things in terms of functions, variables, ordinates, and plane geometry) make this a great work of mathematical fiction. Do not look for historical accuracy here, although I am sure that at least some of this is factually correct. Instead, read it for fun, and for a distorted view of these early days of advanced mathematics that emphasizes the foundational role that they played in leading to the modern information age.
The historical figure Robert Hooke (who is only nominally a mathematician due to his title of "professor of geometry", IMHO) also plays an important role in the book. It is about time this brilliant man got more attention. As the book demonstrates, he deserves quite a bit more credit as an inventor and scientist than he generally gets. (In fact, there is good reason to believe that it was he who first developed the concept of an inverse square law for the force of gravity and recognized its connection to the elliptical orbits of planets and that Newton not only stole this idea from him but actively worked to hide Hooke's contributions to science! See, for instance Newton's Hooke.)
The Baroque Cycle volumes 2 and 3 are now also published. They may be of interest to visitors to this Website because Newton and Leibniz remain important characters throughout the series. However, their mathematics becomes less important (and their theology more important) as it progresses. Consequently, I will not be giving them their own entries on the list of mathematical fiction.
More information is available at the author's website: http://www.nealstephenson.com/.
|Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)