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Strange Attractors (1993)
Rebecca Goldstein
(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) and literati.

Contributed by Felipe Voloch, University of Texas.

"Strange attractors: Collection of short stories, some of which have mathematical content. Two stories (the geometry of soap bubbles and impossible love and strange attractors) figure the same main character, a brilliant young female mathematician who works on soap bubbles. The story does not dwell so much on the math but it does mention some facts such as soap films always making angles of 120 or 105 degrees. Like in The Mind-Body Problem, mathematicians are portrayed as socially awkward but clearly the author has spend time among mathematicians and captures some of their idiossincrasies. (Quite unlike the dreadful Leaning Towards Infinity whose author probably never met a mathematician and whose portrayal of them is truly offensive)."

It is almost unfair to call this a collection of short stories, since they are all tied together so nicely. The common themes of Judaism and mathematics run through most of them, but they are tied together in a more explicit way by the last story (Strange Attractors).

The mathematician that Voloch describes in his review above is Phoebe Saunders, grandchild of an actress from the experimental Yiddish theatre and daughter of a classics professor at Barnard.

(quoted from Strange Attractors)

It was while she was a graduate student at Princeton that she had returned to her soap bubbles, this time captivated by the exquisite geometry of their convergence.

Bright clusters of infinite variety. But beneath the play of iridescence on shifting forms are rigorous description and rules of simple elegance, embodying perfect symmetry, and determining which configurations are possible and which aren't the "Plateau rules," named after a Belgian physicist who had formulated them more than a century ago:

Soap bubbles consist of flat or smoothly curved surfaces, seamlessly joined together, with surfaces meeting in only two ways: either exactly three surfaces meet along a smooth curve, or six surfaces (together with four curves) meet at a vertex.

The angles formed are always equal -- 120 degrees when three surfaces meet along a curve, close to 109 degress when four curves meet at a point -- so that all the elaborate, asymetrical shapes of froth are built of itneratctions of maximal symmetry.

But beyond the simply stated Plateau rules lies a range of mathematical problems of satisfying intricacy, combining both analytic and geometric techniques into a branch of mathematics mirroring, to Pheobe's awestruck mind, the luminous beauty of the soap bubbles themselves.

The stories almost all focus on character rather than plot. We learn about the characters' thoughts, motivations and relationships. In "Rabbinical Eyes", the main character is the daughter of a Rabbinical scholar who is unable to keep a job as a congregational Rabbi in the US. The mathematics in this story is more elementary, but still possibly of interest to mathematicians/math educators. Here the mathematics is grade school mathematics, the subject in which she "competes" with the smartest kid in school.

In the title story, "Strange Attractors", we travel with Phoebe to IHES in Paris for a workshop run by the godlike Antoine Shahaza. She seems to have been invited as much for the novel ability to recite Shakespeare in Yiddish (learned from her grandmother) as for her mathematics. There we meet an interesting cast of characters, mathematicians and their relatives, who strike me at least as being very realistic. There is a bit of mathematical discussion when IHES resident genius Oren Glube helps her by suggesting a dynamic approach to the problem she is considering. (This is where the `strange attractor' of the title comes in.) Oddly, I think I would have liked the story better had this brief passage been left out because it is the only thing that makes me not believe in the characters...without this somewhat bogus sounding mathematics the characters seem entirely real to me.

Contributed by Robert Osserman

My rating of 3 out of 5 for math is based on the whole collection of stories, some of which have no math, and in some of which math is central.

I have begun to wonder whether the character of Oren Glube is based in any way on the mathematician Ofer Gabber. I know nothing about Ofer Gabber other than the little bit that is available online. In particular, I know that he is originally Israeli and started as a resident mathematician at IHES at about the same time that Oren Glube is said to have done so. That and the fact that they share the same initials are the basis for my conjecture that he is the inspiration for the fictional character. Does anyone reading this know if he shares any of Glube's unusual personality traits?

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Works Similar to Strange Attractors
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
  2. The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein
  3. Continuums by Robert Carr
  4. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  5. The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell
  6. What Are the Odds? by Justin Spitzer (writer) / Matthew Tritt (director)
  7. Good Benito by Alan P. Lightman
  8. Reality Conditions by Alex Kasman
  9. Touch the Water, Touch the Wind by Amos Oz
  10. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
Ratings for Strange Attractors:
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:
3.75/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.75/5 (4 votes)

MotifAcademia, Proving Theorems, Female Mathematicians, Romance, Math Education, Religion,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Analysis/Calculus/Differential, Chaos/Fractals,
MediumShort Stories,

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