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The Three Body Problem (2004)
Catherine Shaw
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors).

A cleverly titled novel that uses a historical mathematical contest and several characters based on real mathematicians as the basis for a murder mystery. Of special interest is the novel's presentation of social interactions among the mathematical community at Cambridge University in the 19th century from the point of view of a woman who longs to be a part of it.
When two or more mathematicians conduct research collaboratively, exactly how does this work, and how should individual contributions be weighed? When comparing the body of research of two mathematicians, can one necessarily conclude that the one with fewer published papers is inferior? These sorts of questions often arise in the context of tenure and promotion of math professors, but they take on a life-and-death significance in the trial of a mathematician accused of killing three colleagues in Catherine Shaw's novel ``The Three Body Problem''.

In addition to the three corpses in the story, the title refers to the famous mathematical problem which attempts to describe the motion of three or more masses subject to the laws of physics (and especially gravitational attraction) developed by Isaac Newton. In fact, it was Newton's mathematical proof that a stable elliptical orbit was one of the possible consequences of the ``inverse square law of gravity'' in the case of two bodies which convincingly demonstrated the role of gravity in governing the motion of celestial objects as well as smaller objects falling to Earth. However, all attempts to provide similar results in the case of three or more objects had failed, making the ``n-body problem'' (where n here is considered to be an arbitrary positive integer representing the number of objects under consideration) a significant goal of mathematicians from the time of Newton until the late 19th Century.

In 1888, the King of Sweden offered a significant prize for the solution of this problem. The prize was claimed by Henri Poincare who showed not only that no general solution was possible, but moreover identified the ``sensitive dependence upon initial conditions'' which limits the usefulness of any solution which one could find based on imprecise measurements. With hindsight, we can see this as a key step towards our recognition of and understanding of the mathematical phenomenon known as ``chaos'' in the 20th century. However, at the time it was probably only viewed as the final disaster undermining of the goal of solving the n-body problem. (It turns out not to have been such a disaster, in fact. Not only do we now know many interesting but extremely specialized cases of exact solutions, but we have a good enough understanding of the role of chaos to be able to use our mathematics constructively to guide spaceships between planets and other large celestial objects using very little fuel.)

All of that is true and historical, though neither the novel nor the summary above really capture the interesting twists and turns in the story of Poincare and the prize. But, the novel goes farther, using the prize as the motive behind the murders of three Cambridge University mathematicians.

The novel takes the form of letters from Vanessa Duncan, a young schoolmistress in Cambridge, to her ailing twin back home. Duncan has a love of mathematics, and writes a good deal about the arithmetic she teaches her pupils. Through her neighbor, a mathematician at the university who becomes the prime suspect in the murders, and the connections of one of her young students, she eventually is able to get to know the academic community that she initially only watched longingly from afar. She meets historical mathematicians, including Arthur Cayley and Gösta Mittag-Leffler. Although she does not meet any female mathematicians, Duncan does learn about the existence of Grace Chisholm and Sonya Kovalevskaya.

The mathematical details of the n-body problem and the attempts to solve it are not as significant in the resolution of the mystery as are the social aspects of mathematical collaboration. The author has a very good understanding of this complicated dynamic, including the fact that we rarely try to measure how much of the credit for a collaborative effort should go to each of the individual authors, that there is some threshhold below which a contribution does not qualify for joint authorship, that collaboration often takes the form of just talking about ideas that eventually crystallize into a significant result, and that there is a tendency for those involved in such a discussion to each feel that the key contributions were their own. It is easy to see how such a situation could lead to disagreements, though I am not aware of any real murders resulting from mathematical collaborations!

Shaw has a very good understanding of mathematicians as people. The characters seem quite realistic and not the flat stereotypes one often encounters in this genre. Perhaps then it is intentional that the stereotypes of mathematicians which appear in the novel are presented not in the voice of the narrator, but rather by the defense and the prosecution in the trial of Duncan's neighbor (and romantic interest). The prosecution describes quite explicitly the notion that work in mathematics leaves the researcher prone to insanity and violence. (This is, unfortunately, an apparently very common belief, though I have not seen any evidence to support it outside of fiction. Note that a similar diatribe occurs in the 1929 mystery The Bishop Murder Case.) The defense responds with an alternative theory based on the notion that only young mathematicians can produce good results. (This stereotype is widely believed by mathematicians themselves, though I myself am skeptical that this is the case.)

Other reviewers have complained about the believability, period accuracy, and over-estimation of the interest that non-mathematicians may have in the plot on the part of the author. However, from my point of view (keep in mind that I'm a mathematician and no expert on Victorian England) the Three Body Problem successfully captures the feeling of its historical period and the atmosphere of academic mathematics, using them as the venue for a decent murder mystery. I think that many visitors to this site would enjoy reading it and highly recommend it.

Considering the intimate knowledge of mathematics demonstrated by the author, I am not surprised to learn from the brief "about the author" entries on various websites that "Catherine Shaw" is a pseudonym used by a woman who is herself a mathematician and an academic. Moreover, I have seen her Harvard education mentioned in a few press releases. However, I have no more specific information about who she may be. In particular, I do not know whether she actually has a PhD in mathematics and holds a position as a professor of mathematics, but I would be interested in knowing if anyone out there can provide me with more details!

Update: I have been contacted by "Catherine Shaw" who, while wishing to remain anonymous, does confirm that she has a doctorate in mathematics and is an academician.

Update Update: Thanks to Mark Kozek for point out to me that Catherine Shaw's identity is apparently no longer a secret. According to her publisher:

Contributed by Georgetown Publications

CATHERINE SHAW is a pseudonym used by Leila Schneps. She is a mathematician and academic and writer of murder mysteries. She lives in Paris, France.

After taking an undergraduate degree in pure mathematics at Harvard University, Leila Schneps moved to France in 1983, where shortly after obtaining her Ph.D., she was hired by the French National Scienctific Research Centre as a researcher in mathematics. Over twenty years of doing maths, teaching, and mentoring graduate students, her interests have widened far beyond the horizons of pure algebra to aspects of mathematics - such as probability and statistics- that play a more visible role in the world around us, and to the way in which people absorb, reject or react to mathematics. At the same time, a lifelong passion for mystery stories led Leila to try her hand at writing one herself, eventually leading to a series of "Cambridge Mysteries" published by Allison & Busby.

The Notices of the American Mathematical Society has published a review of this novel by Richard Montgomery, who is an expert on the dynamical systems discussed in the book. The review can be downloaded in PDF format from this link.

For Vanessa Duncan's continuing adventures, see Flowers Stained with Moonlight and The Library Paradox.

Contributed by Susan

I am not a mathematician and was somewhat over my head in the discussions of mathmatical problems and solutions. However, I was entranced by the characters and enjoyed the mystery. I was also drawn to research the n body problem and learned a great deal both from the book and from the ensuing research. I am now reading the third in her series and look forward to many more.

Contributed by John Green

Just a comment.I read a fair ammout of 'detective' fiction a taste probably started with a Sherlock Holmes story in a great uncle's bound volume of the 'Strand' magazine and by Erich Kaestners 'Emil and the detectives'; Catherine Shaw's style, eschewing violence for violence's sake is both restful and intensely engaging. I am not quite old enough to check authenticity with experience as I can with writers, some infuriatingly inept, attempting to evoke the mid 20th century, my parents being born in the last decde of the 19th century and in the wrong social class but there is a strong flavour of authenticity. I sympathise with the Scandinavian and Italian authors but their attacks on their countries' political systems are becoming almost mechanical. I'm just into my second adventure with Vanessa, perhaps I should save the others a little longer.

My working life was largely in the application of science to commerce but my mathematical studies were somewhat attenuated so I might even give a thought to the lady's exploration of sodoku, a fashion which has, so far,passed me by.

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Works Similar to The Three Body Problem
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Square Root of Murder by Ada Madison
  2. Flowers Stained with Moonlight by Catherine Shaw
  3. The Library Paradox by Catherine Shaw
  4. NUMB3RS by Nick Falacci / Cheryl Heuton
  5. The Case of the Murdered Mathematician by Julia Barnes / Kathy Ivey
  6. The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Or the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King
  7. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  8. Advanced Calculus of Murder by Erik Rosenthal
  9. Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides
  10. Continuums by Robert Carr
Ratings for The Three Body Problem:
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:
4.25/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (4 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Mystery,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Academia, Proving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians, Romance, Math Education,
TopicAnalysis/Calculus/Differential, Mathematical Physics,

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