a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|A British meteorologist is stationed in Scotland during World War II not to simply run a weather station (which is his cover), but to get to know the brilliant Wallace Ryman and learn to use his mathematical approach to weather prediction.
Of course, weather prediction and modeling turbulence are not necessarily mathematical subjects. There are those who address them experimentally (for example, looking at the flow of a liquid around a sphere in a laboratory) or entirely non-scientifically ("my knee hurts, so it will rain tomorrow"). Therefore, it is worth mentioning here that in this book, the approach is decidedly mathematical. Ryman is described several times as being a mathematician, it is emphasized that Meadows (the young meteorologist) was a prize winning math student, much of the focus is on the Ryman Number which measures turbulence, and discussions of mathematics occur throughout the book.
Although this justifies the inclusion of the book in this database, it does not really explain what the book is about since, besides the mathematics that underlies the plot, there is a great deal of human interest as well. Ryman is a pacifist who refuses to help the British government with the war. Meadows is a young man, desperate to prove himself romantically and scientifically, and still scarred by the horrific death of his parents in a mudslide. Ryman's beautiful wife wishes to be a mother, and thinks her fertility problems might be resolved if Meadows were the father rather than her husband. And, of course, there is the war and D-Day, which add to the tension despite the fact that the reader knows well how that will turn out anyway. As one might expect from the author of the acclaimed Last King of Scotland, all of this is handled very well. However, for obvious reasons, I will concentrate in the rest of this review on the mathematical aspects.
Here, for example, are a few of the more mathematical passages from the book:
A few little things are clear indicators to me that the author is no expert in mathematics. (For instance, a mathematician never talks of "solving" a computation. One performs computations. Equations are solved when one finds a choice of objects which make it true. Also, I do not think I have ever before seen a derivative written as "dT/∂t", a quotient of a total and partial differential, such as shows up here in the definition of the Ryman number.) On the other hand, what he writes about mathematics is reasonable (though not particularly deep or interesting) and positive. In fact, I would say that this book is the kind of book I was thinking of when I started this website. My original goal in starting this directory of mathematical fiction was simply to select works of fiction that would serve as good "propaganda" for mathematics, helping readers to recognize the beauty and usefulness of this academic discipline, and this book certainly can do that.
As with many works of historical fiction, it is sometimes difficult to keep reality separate from the fiction. For instance, Pyke (the man described in the last quote above) is a real scientist who worked with the idea of using ice for construction. So far as I know, none of the other major characters were actual historical figures, although the author claims to have partially based Ryman on Lewis Fry Richardson. (Note: According to this article in the AMS Notices, it was Rossby, a student of Richardson, who made important computations regarding weather that were utilized on D-Day.) Similarly, although there are things similar to the Ryman number in many areas of applied mathematics, the Ryman number itself is fictional.
Overall, this is a nicely written (though sometimes overly melodramatic) novel about World War II with interesting characters, many of whom happen to talk about mathematics frequently. I am certain that many regular visitors to this website will enjoy reading it. If you do, please help me out by posting your own opinions and comments below using the link in the Ratings section.
|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.)|
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)