MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Leaning Towards Infinity (1996)
Sue Woolfe
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Tells the story of an Australian woman who wins a contest for the best mathematical theory from an amateur mathematician. The prize is a trip to a math conference in Athens. The theory proposed by the winner was actually developed by her mother, but was unfinished because the job of raising a child (which she does not appear to have done very well) prevented her from continuing. As a result, the two women harbor a great deal of resentment for each other that the main character hopes to resolve by completing and presenting her mother's theory at the conference. Unfortunately, the mathematicians at the conference are (nearly) all selfish, immature, sexist, jerks, who refuse to listen to her theory merely on the grounds that she is an amateur. (In fact, it should be noted that the daughter's daughter is supposed to be the narrator/editor of the book, and that she and her mother harbor similar resentment for each other, though she is not a mathematician herself.)

The author has done some homework in writing this book. She mentions many real mathematicians and some real mathematical results along with her fictional ones. However, it is clear that she has not fully understood all that she is writing about...some of the comments are not quite right. This is a relatively common problem in mathematical fiction, and not one that I am especially critical of. I think she has brought together some interesting mathematical anecdotes in the historical portions of the book, and those who do not look at it carefully enough to notice will probably be better off for having read them despite the mathematical errors.

The book is well written -- it is an award winner in fact -- but I'm afraid that I cannot be entirely positive about it. Below you will see some quotes from people who really liked this book. They are not alone, because the book was well received as a work of literature. However, I'm going to complain about the portrayal of mathematics and mathematicians in the book, which really spoiled it for me. (I am not alone in this either, since I have received e-mail from other readers of the book who felt the same way, and the reviews on Amazon include some of a similar vein.)

According to this book, the participants at the math conference do not even attempt to listen to each other, but rather interrupt with non sequiturs in the hopes of preventing the speaker from finishing. In this book, male mathematicians add the word "miss" to the schedule near the names of female speakers, both to indicate their marital status and the fact that one should not want to attend the talk. In this book, the male participants taunt the female mathematician speaking to them with cries of "I see her nipple!" In this book, a mathematician "admits" that all of the deep theorems of math are false and all of the true ones are trivial.

Please believe me when I say that mathematicians and mathematics conferences are nothing like this. Now, you could say "But, Alex, this is fiction. The author is just trying to tell a story." That may be so, but there are moral responsibilities that an author has beyond creating a fictional universe. The way they tell their story can have real effects on people in the real universe. In another review, I criticize an author for having a character recognize a person as a mugger at a bus stop merely because the person is black. Now, you could similarly argue that in the fictional universe of that story such prejudice could be justified. But, I will not be swayed, because I think it is both embarassing that the author presents this view and irresponsible since it introduces a dangerously distorted expectation to the readers who may well apply the idea to our real world. In the same way, I find the presentation of mathematicians in this book not only to be offensive, but irresponsible since some readers will certainly come to think of this unrealistic representation of our society as having been a true "informative" look at part of the real world. (Let me especially speak to mathematically talented young women: please do not be scared away from mathematics by this story! Women are underrepresented in this field, but not because of the kind of sexism that this book portrays.)

Contributed by Frans Beijer

A beautiful novel. I was drawn to it by it's fictive mathematical implications, but got sucked in by the harsh beauty with which the struggle of women in a man's world is portrayed. Breathtaking power of sentences. Nearly poetry.

Contributed by Anthea Trevelyan

"I found the so-called sexism entirely relevant to the situation of the protagonist (all three generations of them, actually.) Being a woman with a baby, striving to achieve original and/or creative goals of any substance is a barely possible juggling act! The work is all-or-nothing; the baby needs to be all-or-nothing...something has to give! "

Contributed by Helen Fraser

Good morning, I have read your comments re the unfavourable 'press' given to male mathematicians at conferences in this book. As a reader, and as someone who just loved this book, I must say I read it purely as fiction and it didn't occur to me that this sort of behaviour would be generalist. I really do think you are being a bit over-sensitive, but then I confess to being the least mathematical person you would ever be unfortunate enough to meet, and I know only one maths professor - a gorgeous guy! I didn't (don't) understand most of the maths in the book, but that didn't detract one iota from my enjoyment of it. Anyway, thanks for the opportunity of commenting. Best wishes. Helen Fraser

Contributed by Sarah-Kate Magee

Leaning Towards Infinity is amazingly well written and enjoyable to read through. The math in LTI is not content based but speaks more to the stereotypical perception of male mathematicians and the math community.

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com. Amazon.com logo
(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 Leaning Towards Infinity
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Penultimate Conjecture by Leonard Michaels
  2. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
  3. Mrs. Einstein by Anna McGrail
  4. Antonia's Line by Marleen Gorris
  5. Tigor (aka The Snowflake Constant) by Peter Stephan Jungk
  6. Three times table by Sara Maitland
  7. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  8. Gambler's Rose by G.W. Hawkes
  9. Properties of Light by Rebecca Goldstein
  10. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
Ratings for Leaning Towards Infinity:
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:
2.85/5 (7 votes)
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Literary Quality:
3.99/5 (8 votes)
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Categories:
Genre
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Academia, Female Mathematicians, Math as Cold/Dry/Useless,
Topic
MediumNovels,

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Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)