MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Mother's Milk (2005)
Andrew Thomas Breslin
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for hardcore fans of science fiction.

Lawyer Cindy Kichlklug takes on the dairy industry (with the aid of a quirky mathematician) in this witty SF satire.

The "conspiracy theory" in the book is well put together. It tightly combines so many things (from the Kennedy assassinations and global warming to the four food groups and the death of Alan Turing) that it would almost be believable if it weren't so unbelievable. In particular, the idea is that the world is controlled by the dairy industry and the dairy industry in turn is controlled by aliens from Vega who want to take over the planet.

Of course, none of that is very mathematical. However, math makes key and frequent appearances in the book. Most of the mathematical content involves Eddie, a mathematician who is working for the anti-dairy activists but is really "only in it for the math". The main connection between the math and the plot is a new theorem he has proved that allows for better analysis of epidemiological data and therefore brings into question any claims that dairy belongs in a healthy diet. As a result, Eddie is kidnapped by the bad guys and the disk containing his analysis of the data becomes a major focal point.

Eddie is portrayed as being a "stereotypical math nerd" in many ways. He is constantly talking about math and how beautiful/useful it is, but seems unable to convey any of this to the non-mathematicians around him. (I like the line "Eddie's brow was deeply furrowed and Cindy could only guess that he was analyzing the structure on some mystical mathematical level beyond her understanding or at least his articulation.")

In an e-mail message, Breslin wrote:

Contributed by Andrew Breslin

I apologize that the mathematician character perpetuates the stereotype of the socially inept math nerd, but in all honesty, he's based more on myself than anyone else. And the story is far more in the tradition of Douglas Adams than, say, Arthur C Clarke. It's meant to stimulate the brain, yes, but the priority is the funny bone.

Breslin, who does not have a degree in mathematics but clearly has genuine interest, writes mathematical nonsense very well. Here is a sample:

(quoted from Mother's Milk)

“So what is this new data you are so excited about, Eddie?” she asked as he took a seat opposite her.

“It’s a smoking frickin’ gun!”

“So you raved.”

“It’s all right here,” he said, handing her a 250MB Zip disk. “Using the latest data and new mathematical models of analysis, synthesizing work in separate mathematical subdisciplines. The Fishman Reduction Theorem is now complete. This is neato with a capital N! Cool with a capital C! I’ll probably get the Fields medal!”

“Down, boy,” Cindy requested.

“All right. All right,” Eddie said, calming down for a few seconds, then pulling out sheaves of printouts from his satchel. “Ooh, ooh! It’s so cool! You’ve got to see these contingency tables and chi-square distributions. And just look at this linear regression model! It’s a thing of beauty!” Eddie held up a few papers covered by graphs.

“I don’t think the Mona Lisa has anything to worry about.”

“And check out these data here,” Eddie said, pointing at a chart. “This essentially proves that milk consumption offers no protection against osteo- porosis.” He pulled out more charts and graphs. “This shows a clear, inarguable contribution to breast cancer, and this here shows an absolutely air- tight causative relationship between infant-formula consumption and juvenile diabetes.

“It was all speculation before, and the dairy industry could write it off to other factors, statistical anomalies and whatnot, but not anymore! All the math has finally come together. I’ve figured out how to rip that signal from the jaws of noise. It’s . . . it’s . . .” He struggled in all his nerdy glory to explain his esoteric passion in terms comprehensible to the great unwashed innumerate masses. “It’s like the unified field theorem of statistical meta- analysis!” His glasses slid right off his face, lubricated by excited sweat, and he crammed them back on.

Cindy nodded, understanding some of what he had just said, but still finding much of it to be in a foreign, non-Indo-European language. “Do you want to make one last attempt to explain this in plain English, Eddie?”

Eddie again inhaled deeply, then let the air leak slowly back out. Speaking in plain English is by far the greatest hurdle mathematicians have to sur- mount. Much more difficult than, say, solving partial differential equations or analyzing higher-dimensional arrays.

“Okay. Say you’ve got some epidemiological data that suggests a relationship between some cause and some disease, but you don’t get a smooth, straight line, because there are so many additional variables. Differences in smoking rates, exercise, other dietary factors, genetic differences in populations, overall life expectancy, and so on. So the traditional conclusion is that the system is far too complex to analyze. Too much noise and not enough signal.”

“Okay.”

“But you see, there are strange attractors within the chaotic multidimensional phase space describing human nutrition and health!”

“Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

“That means there’s a signal in that noise!” Eddie said, jumping up from his seat and waving his hand, no longer able to contain himself. Cindy moved her coffee to another table.

There is quite a bit of mathematics spread throughout the book, including classic math jokes ("Why do mathematicians confuse Halloween and Christmas?"), classic math puzzles ("Where is the missing $2?"), and quite a bit of mathematical nonsense like the "strange attractors" in the quoted passage above.

There are non-mathematical items of interest as well: some etymology, geography of Washington DC, legalese, etc. All-in-all, I would say it is a very entertaining and successful first novel. (Breslin is now trying to find a publisher for his second novel, and I hope he finds one.)

More information about this work can be found at www.encpress.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.)

Works Similar to Mother's Milk
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  2. Monster's Proof by Richard Lewis
  3. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  4. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  5. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
  6. Monster by Alex Kasman
  7. Nymphomation by Jeff Noon
  8. The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells (Episode: The Truth about Pyecraft) by Chris Harrald (Script) / Clive Exton (Script) / Herbert George Wells (story)
  9. Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory by Rudy Rucker
  10. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Ratings for Mother's Milk:
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:
3.67/5 (3 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4.33/5 (3 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Aliens, Turing,
TopicFictional Mathematics, Probability/Statistics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)