MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) (2004)
Yoko Ogawa
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

In the Japanese novel Hakase No Aishita Sushiki, a young single mother is hired to care for an older mathematician who is suffering from anterograde amnesia caused by a car accident. The professor, who covers his coat with notes to remind himself of things he would otherwise forget, spends most of his time working on solutions to math problems that appear in magazines, the prizes from which are his only source of income though he shows no interest in the checks they send him when his entries win a prize. Despite the mathematician's anti-social behavior, the woman and her son "root" (so named because his head is shaped like a square root symbol) get to like him and learn mathematics in order to understand him better.

The mathematician was a number theorist, and though he cannot form any new memories following the car accident, he still remembers detailed information about the integers and their properties. For instance, each time the housekeeper arrives it is as if he is meeting her for the first time. He always asks her to name some number from her life (e.g. phone number, age, etc.) and will then tell her what makes that number special.

In addition to a lot of number theory, the novel includes many references to baseball, a few references to religion and some significant references to Euler's formula relating e, π, i, 1 and 0 (although in my copy of the book the equal sign was missing from the equation each time it appeared).

This is a really sweet novel in which the reader not only gets to appreciate mathematics through the eyes of the nameless housekeeper, but also gets to like the people. Just as the housekeeper missed the professor during the brief period when she lost her job working for him, I miss all of the characters in the book now that I have finished reading it. It is not a "page turner"; there is no mystery or conflict that drives the plot. We merely share some time with these likable characters and learn about those things that give their lives meaning and purpose.

Note Added January 2009: This book has now been translated into English by Stephen Snyder (a Middlebury College Japanese professor) and published by Picador USA under the title The Housekeeper and the Professor. The publisher wrote me to say:

Contributed by Danielle Sclang, Picador USA

As you may already know, Ogawa is a wildly popular author in Japan, and we are so excited to introduce her to American readers. Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe has written that, “Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.”

In scenes which were added for the film version (released in 2006), we see "Root" as an adult. He has become a mathematics teacher. His love for mathematics and respect for the old scholar are apparent to the students in the class and supposedly make this an especially touching scene for educators.

Contributed by TPC

I just saw half of the movie on a plane. It's quite charming (at least the hour that I've watched.) The movie starts with the adult "root" recalling the story to his students. There were explanation of factorials and a fairly thorough discussion of amicable numbers. I think there was an error in the example of complex numbers.

Contributed by Richard Montgomery

Notable in that it is a sensitive story about emerging human relationships which uses sound mathematics as a bonding force. The capturing storyline and engaging prose effortlessly carries the reader into several levels of mathematical appeal, from the lure of number patterns to the joy of discovery, to suggestions of mathematical themes beyond all else.

Dr. Richard Montgomery
Professor Emeritus
Southern Oregon University

Contributed by CJH

I am not a mathematician so I cannot evaluate the accuracy of the mathematics in this book. I do, however, read a lot and out of all the works of mathematical fiction that I've read so far (The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, Division by Zero, A Certain Ambiguity, The Fractal Murders being a short list) this one is, by far, the best. Mathematics plays a central role to the story without drying it out or slowing it down. Like other works I've read, I had the urge to look up the mathematical concepts mentioned within however, unlike the other works, the urge to continue reading was stronger.

An excellent, elegant blend of mathematics and fiction.

Contributed by Hauke Reddmann

this is just a short note that a) selfsame book is also available in German as "Das Geheimnis der Eulerschen Formel", b) got a likewise enthusiastic reception here which c) I second. d) In case you have Japanese readers, I would love if they could explain the puns which naturally got lost in translation. Even if they'd cease to be funny.

Contributed by Stephen Meskin

A fine literary work involving mathematics. Ironically it portrays a mentally disabled mathematician who is shown and accepted as a warm human being, rather than the way mathematicians are often treated in our society as mentally disabled.

Contributed by Stephen Meskin

As good as it is, the statement of Fermat's Theorem is incorrect in the edition I read.

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Works Similar to The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
  2. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  3. Proof by David Auburn (playwright)
  4. The Arnold Proof by Jessica Francis Kane
  5. The Devotion of Suspect X [Yôgisha X no kenshin] by Keigo Higashino
  6. Falling Umbrella by Julia Whitty
  7. Reading by Numbers by Aidan Doyle
  8. Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz by Irene Dische
  9. Rites of Love and Math by Edward Frenkel / Reine Graves
  10. Mathematical Goodbye by Hiroshi Mori
Ratings for The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki):
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:
4.22/5 (9 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4.13/5 (8 votes)
..

Categories:
Genre
MotifGenius, Anti-social Mathematicians, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Math Education,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics,
MediumNovels, Films,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)