a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|An unusual and intimate novel that follows three women: a widowed sheep-farmer, a mathematician who studies quasicrystals, and a taxidermist (whose included blog entries explain the title of the book). Each of them is an unusual character, both in the sense that they are somewhat odd people and in that they are not like most fictional characters. The sheep-farmer has a growth on her face that leaves her anti-social and the taxidermist poses squirrels as athletes (an old tradition I have always thought strange). Refreshingly, the mathematician Lisa Wallace is in many ways the most normal of the three. |
Quite a bit of the book is about biology. There is a lot of interesting factual biological information entertainingly provided within its pages, primarily provided by the taxidermist. However, as this is a Website about mathematics in fiction, I will be spending most of the rest of this essay discussing the mathematical aspects of the story involving Lisa Wallace.
The most unusual thing about Lisa is that she is achondroplasic. Although she has some insecurities due to her dwarfism, she is much more outgoing and confident than either of the two other women. In an opening chapter we see her as a little girl, being humiliated by her sister and promising to grow up to be a "rocket scientist". Presumably, she was already thinking that in a field like math (or rocket science) your physical body is not as important as what your mind can achieve. [To some degree, I think that is true, and it is something that I personally appreciate about this discipline. Of course, there are some individuals in math who are beautiful and/or physically fit, but it is difficult to think of a field in which those things matter less than they do in math.]
The book includes just a tiny bit of discussion of what quasicrystals are and why they are studied both by scientists and by mathematicians. For instance, it says:
Penrose tilings are casually mentioned much later, but it is probably not clear to the uninformed reader that this is connected to the lack of symmetry in quasi-crystals described above. All together, there is not enough of a discussion of the mathematics of quasi-crystals to truly inform someone who was not previous familiar with them, but it may be enough to spark their interest and get them to look it up elsewhere. [If you're someone who is reading this seeking such information, let me just explain the basic idea, hopefully in easy to understand terms. If you could look at the atoms in a crystal like salt, they are arranged in a very neat regular pattern, like the squares on an empty chess board. The chess board has a lot of symmetries. If the chess board was infinite rather than having edges, you could shift it around so that a black square ends up where another black square had been and it would look exactly the same. Similarly, rotating the board around the center of any square by 90 degrees also leaves it looking exactly as before. That is what we call a "symmetry", and it had been assumed that all crystals were symmetric in that way. But, just as you can "tile" an infinite plane with black and white squares to make a symmetric infinite chess board pattern, you can tile it with "dart" and "kite" shapes invented by mathematician Roger Penrose, and the odd thing about that tessellation is that it does not have any symmetries. You cannot shift or rotate it so that it comes out looking the same. It is a non-periodic tiling. Completely independently of Penrose's theoretical discovery, scientists were discovering that some physical solids that they thought were crystals also had no actual symmetries. The field of quasicrystals combines these two into a single subject of research.]
The readers are invited into the minds of the three principle characters; we learn something about the way they think. I believe we are supposed to recognize that Lisa thinks geometrically. Frequently she has an image of "pale spheres" and has to try to figure out why she is thinking about it, running through memories of baby dolls with hair made of metal shavings from her father's workshop and a photo of (glass) eyeballs in the taxidermist's house. Consider also this passage:
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)