a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.|
|Well, this book is hard to describe! It's certainly different and not easily categorizable. It is a novel that addresses the question "What if a young, nerdy, MIT mathematics professor died of cancer and was reborn into the fully grown, really muscular body of the most talented rookie in major leage baseball?" It also addresses the question "What if this didn't happen, but a bunch of coincidences made it seem as if it had?"
Arthur Hodges, the kind of math professor who loves only math (having no sexual relationships, no interest in sports, etc.) dies, leaving his older friend (also a math professor, but one with more of a life) depressed. The older gentleman leaves his job and his family and goes to live in a trailer park in the desert. There he meets a gentleman who has faith that God has a plan for him. (His belief in God traces back to World War II where he was a soldier fighting for the Nazis and was saved from a dire situation.) It is his belief that the new rookie with the habit of spouting mathematics is, in fact, the recently deceased Arthur Hodges and, thinking it is all part of the plan, arranges for him to come live in the trailer park as well.
The book gives both the older mathematician and the rookie lots of opportunities to talk about mathematics. They talk about Fibonacci sequences, solving nonlinear equations, the fundamental theorem of calculus, factoring polynomials, quantum mechanics, and relativity. Eventually, the people they are speaking to become interested in this stuff. (At one point, his teammates urge the rookie to "tell [them] again" about rational numbers!) But, the author's understanding of these things is not very deep. So, although he is able to describe most of it without making any real mistakes, the mathematics itself will not be of much interest to anyone who has ever encountered these concepts before. Still, it is a lot of fun to hear these words coming out of the mouth of a professional baseball player and to be able to see the reactions of those around him.
The book does not make a distinction between "mathematician" and "theoretical physicist". Although I, as someone who has a degree in mathematics but often publishes in physics journals, would certainly admit that the boundary between the two is quite fuzzy, the terms are certainly not synonymous. It is not clear even after having read the entire book whether these characters were mathematicians or physicists.
Although most of the mathematics discussed is basically correct, the author gets a little bit confused when talking about the "golden mean". This irrational number is equal to half of one plus the square root of five and shows up in a variety of contexts (Fibonacci sequences and the anatomy of plants and spiral shaped shells) because of its connection to self similarity. (Specifically, if you have a rectangle with this aspect ratio, then it can be divided into a square and another rectangle having the same aspect ratio.) It has the property that when you square it you get the same number as you would by adding one to it. (That is, it solves the equation 1+x=x2.) Strangely, this book incorrectly states explicitly that this is not true. (It says they are close but not equal.) I think the author is confused. Perhaps he was thinking of the fact that many people try to approximate irrational numbers with rational numbers, and any rational approximation of the golden mean would not quite satisfy this equation. But, that is why those approximations are not really the golden mean! You can check that one half of one plus the square root of five does satisfy this equation exactly.
I very much enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to others who like mathematical fiction. It is not a perfect book, but it is definitely worth reading.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)