MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle Volume 1 (2003)
Neal Stephenson
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!

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/.

Contributed by Nathaniel Grossman

You mention that there is good reason to believe that Hooke first developed the notion of the inverse square law and recognized its connection to the elliptical orbits of the planets. The inverse square law was "everywhere" in the air at the time. Savants such as Hooke, Wren, and Huyghens "knew" that it was a strongly possible that it would lead to Kepler elliptical motion. But none of those three (and both Wren and Huyghens were strong mathematicians), as well as others who talked about the inverse square law, could derive elliptical motion from it. Newton eventually grew so irritated and exasperated by Hooke's claims to have preceded Newton that he issued a "put up or shut up" challenge to Hooke. And we know the outcome. Newton was so offended by this and other of Hooke's antics that he refused to become president of the Royal Society until Hooke's forty-year tenure as demonstrator at the weekly meetings of the RS had ended. This matter is covered in Lisa Jardine's recent biographies of Hooke and of Wren. (I believe that she is married to Michael Frayn, the author of "Copenhagen.")

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Works Similar to Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle Volume 1
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  2. Newton's Gift by Paul J. Nahin
  3. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
  4. PopCo by Scarlett Thomas
  5. The Jester and the Mathematician by Alan R. Gordon
  6. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  7. Fermat's Last Tango by Joanne Sydney Lessner / Joshua Rosenblum
  8. A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri / Hartosh Singh Bal
  9. Calculus (Newton's Whores) by Carl Djerassi
  10. Shooting the Sun by Max Byrd
Ratings for Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle Volume 1:
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:
4/5 (2 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4.33/5 (3 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction, Humorous,
MotifGenius, Cool/Heroic Mathematicians, Academia, Real Mathematicians, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Religion, Newton,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Analysis/Calculus/Differential,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)