MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Gulliver's Travels (1726)
Jonathan Swift
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

If you are lucky enough to find an unabridged version of Swift's classic book, you will be able to read (among descriptions of the people of many other unbelievable countries) about the people of Laputa. In Laputa, people are interested only in two things: mathematics and music. Their love of these things goes so far that, for instance, all food is served either in the shape of a mathematical figure or the shape of a musical instrument. I'm afraid I can't say I appreciate some of Swift's stereotypes of mathematicians! I do not mind so much that mathematicians are said to be interested in politics:

(quoted from Gulliver's Travels)

But what I chiefly admired, and thought altogether unaccountable, was the strong disposition I observed in them towards news and politics, perpetually enquiring into public affairs, giving their judgments in matters of state, and passionately disputing every inch of a party opinion. I have indeed observed the same disposition among most of the mathematicians I have known in Europe, although I could never discover the least analogy between the two sciences; unless those people suppose, that because the smallest circle hath as many degrees as the largest, therefore the regulation and management of the world require no more abilities than the handling and turning of a globe.


but I would hate to think that his description of their clumsiness is true of mathematicians today:

(quoted from Gulliver's Travels)

Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevel without one right angle in any apartment, and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic, those instructions they give being too refined for the intellectuals of their workmen, which occasions perpetual mistakes. And although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet in the common actions and behavior of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music. They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case. Imagination, fancy, and invention, they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences.

Presumably, the portrayal of mathematicians as being politically powerful was influenced by Isaac Newton's political connections, as David Fowler mentions (or quote Whitehead mentioning):

Contributed by David Fowler in Mathematics as Science Fiction

Rarely are mathematicians described as foolish, although Swift’s Island of Laputa persists as an image of mathematicians as fools. As Alfred Whitehead pointed out, “Swift describes the mathematicians of that country as silly and useless dreamers. . . . On the other hand, the mathematicians of Laputa . . . ruled the country and maintained their ascendancy over their subjects.” Whitehead also remarked that Newton had just published his Principia and suggested that “Swift might just as well have laughed at an earthquake.”

Note: A very mathematical "sequel" was published in 1947 called Gulliver's Posthumous Travels to Riemann's Land and Lobachevskia.

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(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Gulliver's Travels
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Micromegas by François Marie Arouet de Voltaire
  2. Inquirendo Island by Hudor Genone
  3. The Devil and the Lady by Alfred Tennyson
  4. Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw
  5. The Birds by Aristophanes
  6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
  7. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
  8. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
  9. Mortal Immortal by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  10. Flatterland: like Flatland, only more so by Ian Stewart
Ratings for Gulliver's Travels:
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:
1.25/5 (4 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
5/5 (5 votes)
.

Categories:
GenreHumorous, Fantasy,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians,
Topic
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)