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A Disappearing Number (2007)
Simon McBurney
Highly Rated!

Scenes of Srinivasa Ramanujan's collaboration with G.H. Hardy around the time of World War I are mixed in with modern storylines including an Indian physicist who has applied Ramanujan's work to String Theory and a businessman going through the belongings of his wife, a mathematician who died while visiting India.

This play includes a great deal of "factual information": real quotes from Ramanujan and Hardy, along with serious mathematics (e.g. a discussion of the difficulty in determining the number of partitions of a natural number). Yet, I do not think its purpose is to teach the audience about these things as it is attempting to use them to create a work of art.

The play uses video along with live actors to tie together Ramanujan's story with other related (or even not so related) themes into a moving and meaningful whole. India itself is a running theme, showing up for example the form of the British Telecom customer service agent and a cleaning woman at the university. Even the collapse of bee colonies is tied in with the rest of it. Having only read the script, I obviously did not get everything out of it that I could have if I had seen it performed, but I can already say that I think it is a magnificent work of art, one that does not shy away from mentioning math, but uses the math in a way that goes beyond what could be achieved by a purely non-fictional presentation of the same material.

The Complicite website says of this play:

Contributed by Complicite

A Disappearing Number takes as its starting point the story of the most mysterious and romantic mathematical collaborations of all time.

Simultaneously a narrative and an enquiry, the production crosses three continents and several histories, to weave a provocative theatrical pattern about our relentless compulsion to understand.

Threaded through this pattern of stories and ideas are questions. About mathematics and beauty; imagination and the nature of infinity; about what is continuous and what permanent; how we are attached to the past and how we affect the future; how we create and how we love.

A man mourns the loss of his lover, a mathematician mourns her own fate. A businessman travels from Los Angeles to Chennai pursuing the future; a physicist in CERN looks for it too. The mathematician GHHardy seeks to comprehend the ideas of the genius Srinivasa Ramanujan in the chilly English surroundings of Cambridge during the First World War. Ramanujan looks to create some of the most complex mathematical patterns of all time.

Some pictures from the production are available at the Barbican Theater website, at least for the moment.

More information about this work can be found at
(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 A Disappearing Number
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Man Who Knew Infinity by Matt Brown (Screenwriter and Director)
  2. Ramanujan’s Miracles – A Drama To Demystify Mathematics by R.N. Kapur
  3. Continuums by Robert Carr
  4. The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
  5. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  6. Partition by Ira Hauptman
  7. Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis / Christos Papadimitriou
  8. A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri / Hartosh Singh Bal
  9. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  10. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
Ratings for A Disappearing Number:
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:
4/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.67/5 (3 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifInsanity, Academia, Real Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians,
TopicInfinity, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)