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Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955)
Jean Lee Latham
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for children and young adults.

The life of early American mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch, famous for his work on techniques of navigation, is fictionalized in this novel for young adults. Although the mathematical details are not discussed (the most detailed mathematical idea is when Nat suggests using a log table for the benefit of one sailor who knows how to add but not multiply), it is clear throughout the book that it is Nat's mathematical skills which enable him to succeed despite many disadvantages. It is also clear that many people benefitted from his work. In this way, the book serves as a good ``advertisement'' for the power of mathematics.

One of the things Nat does in the story is teach navigation techniques to everyone in the crew of the ships on which he worked. These scenes are filled with many comments and ideas concerning mathematics education.

Nat finds errors in published tables used by navigators, invents a new method of determining longitude, teaches himself Latin and French, and reads Newton's Principia. A young girl (later to be his wife) makes a comment that helps him avoid being to quick to anger at other people who are not as smart or quick as him.

Contributed by Patrick Hawkins

It is written for a younger (approximately 5th grade) audience, but it is a fine example both of mathematics and literature. (I am an English major, and I can attest to its literary merit). It is the recipient of the Newberry Medal, a prestigious award. It is a fictionalized biography concerning Nathaniel Bowditch of Salem, Massachusetts, who taught himself mathematics and applied his knowledge and love of detail to sailing. It is both a good read and a good example of applied mathematics.

Contributed by Anonymous

This is an amazing book that teaches the virtues of love and perseverance over life's bitter setbacks. I highly recommend it to people of all ages, but especially to young students. These kinds of values are not discussed very often in education these days. The subject is human, not political. That fact alone is a breath of fresh air.

Contributed by Valerie Hulderman

Mathematics are discussed throughout this book, but not as formulas. Rather, the reader can see how integral mathematics are in most aspects of life. Nathaniel Bowditch was the kind of person that considered all of God's creation in his decision making and in his daily life. I highly recommend this book to ANY age reader, but particularly to the impressionable 5th through 8th grade student.

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A very warm, inspiring fictionalization of the life of famed American nautician (if you will, for “a mathematical ocean navigator”), Nathaniel Bowditch. While it is considered to be a novel for young adults, I recommend it for all; I certainly was glad to have discovered it.

“Nat” Bowditch, while not necessariliy a child prodigy, had a very quick mind and consistently surprised the adults around him with his facility for arithmetic. At one point, he learnt Latin through painstaking efforts just to read Newton’s “Principia”. Circumstances led him to a sailor’s life, where he excelled brilliantly. He learnt the craft of navigation well enough not only to correct the reigning standard reference (Moore’s “Navigator”. Reportedly, he found “8 thousand errors” in the calculations of Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyn, in the tables) but also invent a new triangulation method to measure a ship’s latitude (“what if we take the position of the moon in relation to three stars?”) and longitude and boil down all of the calculations to such simple terms that even the common oarsman on the ship knew how to carry out the “lunars”. During long voyages, he undertook to teach every shipmate the art of navigation.

Bowditch ended up publishing an extensive, extremely accurate almanac in 1802 called “The American Practical Navigator”, so good it is evidently still carried on every commissioned US naval vessel as “a sailor’s bible”. As Bowditch proclaims in the novel, “I’m going to write a book of my own. And it’s going to have three things these books don’t have. First, the tables will be correct! Second, every sea term, every manoeuvre, everything a man needs to know, will be explained in words any able seaman can understand. Third, I’ll put in tables so that any seaman can solve problems in navigation, even if he has to count on his fingers to add!”

References to arithmetic / mathematics appear throughout the book, including some spherical geometry in plain English.

The novel won a Newbery Medal in 1956.

Some excerpts/paraphrases:

  • Master Watson to Nate, at age 4: “Nat, if you knew half as much Latin as you know arithmetic, you could enter Harvard tomorrow!”
  • Nat tells a girl she has grown twice as pretty every year for 11 years. The girls exclaims, “Goodness! I’m twenty two times as pretty!” and Nat corrects her to tell her she is 2^11 = 2048 times prettier. (The girl tells him twice in the novel: “You mathematician! I wish you could at least pay a compliment without arithmetic!”)
  • “Doggone”, Herbie said, “it kind of picks a fellow up to think about the stars. Kind of makes you forget about soaking the sale beef till it’s fitten to eat, and about smelling the bilge water. Just think of me learning things! Me!”
  • When he got back to his cabin, he would write down the explanation that had finally made sense to a man. Just so I won’t forget it, if I ever have to explain that again! He told himself. After three weeks, he had quite a stack of notes. He was making a new notebook, he realized, a very different sort of notebook. All his other notebooks just said enough to explain things to him. But this notebook said everything he had to say to explain things to other men – to the men who sailed before a mast.
  • Nat glowed. “See! That’s mathematics! It should give you the right answer!”
  • A compound interest problem solved for a lady, to her utter astonishment. “But that’s right!” Mrs. Pintard gasped. “To the last fraction!”. “Of course,” Nat told her. “That’s the beauty of mathematics. It’s exact.”
  • Nat roared, “Mathematics is nothing if it isn’t correct! Men’s lives depend on those figures!”
  • Nat said, “If we had logarithmic tables of all the trigonometric fundtions, you could work any problem in navigation with nothing but addition and subtraction.” “Log tables? I make them,” Lupe promised, “with the wood!”

Contributed by Anonymous

After studying this book with 3 children ages 10, 11 and 12, I can attest to its mathematical and literary achievement. I believe this book sets a high standard to what an author can accomplish when he/she whats to make a life story interesting to the reader, and more particularly to children. Two of the children who read this book are highly interested in mathematics and science, and all three are top students in math. One student has declared it his favorite book and read it cover to cover several times. As a teacher, I found Mrs Latham's work an easy platform to work with. Nautical terms, sailing phrases, memorable characters and thoughtful morals were well balanced and artfully patterned around the beliefs that 1)mathematics is an essential part of life, and 2)anyone can learn mathematics. I recommend this book to all ages and will keep it on my list of all-time favorites.

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Works Similar to Carry On, Mr. Bowditch
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Sophie's Diary by Dora Musielak
  2. Prince of Mathematics: Carl Friedrich Gauss by Margaret B.W. Tent
  3. Thomas Gray: Philosopher Cat by Philip J. Davis
  4. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  5. Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us) by Brian Hamill
  6. The Goddess of Small Victories [La déesse des petites victoire] by Yannick Grannec
  7. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
  8. Donald in Mathmagic Land by Hamilton Luske (director)
  9. Yesternight by Cat Winters
  10. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
Ratings for Carry On, Mr. Bowditch:
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:
4.14/5 (7 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.38/5 (8 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Children's Literature,
MotifGenius, Prodigies, Real Mathematicians, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Math Education,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)