a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|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
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.)
|Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com.|
|(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.)|
May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the Amazon.com page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)