MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Turbulence (2010)
Giles Foden
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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:

(quoted from Turbulence)

"The Ryman method involves describing every weather situation in figures and making a mathematically informed estimate of how it could develop", I said. "He divides the atmosphere into three-dimensional parcels of air and assigns numerical values to each aspect of the weather within them. Then he uses maths to see where things may go."

...

"The truth is, Meadows, he's not an easy man but he is a brilliant one and the British meteorological community has felt the lack of him keenly. Now we come to the nub of the thing. Are you acquainted with the so-called Ryman number?"

I was coming to the limit of my knowledge. "Only in the most basic sense, sir," I admitted. "It explains the dynamic relationship between the two type of energy, kinetic and potential, that change the weather."

Sir Peter nodded. He did not seem surprised. "No one has got much beyond the basics. That is what I' am sending you to Scotland for. Though I once used some of his work, I myself know only a little about this side of things."

"Why do you need to...? If I may ask...?"

"The Ryman number is of enormous significance because it defines the amount of turbulence in a given situation. ... The government wants to use this number for a particular operation. Airborne and amphibious and enormous in scale. The long-expected invasion across the Channel into mainland Europe. We think Ryan himself is the only man alive who really understand how a range of values of his number might be practically applied - around a specific geographical area and over a particular time window - but he has not responded to my letters."

(quoted from Turbulence)

I spent the second night in the cot-house, as I would many over the forthcoming four months, doing calculations - sometimes in my head, sometimes with a wooden slide-rule, notched and ink-stained, which I still possess. Squeezing precision out of continuous domains in a mustering tumult of differential calculus - such was my life in that strange time.

Lying on the bed doing calculus. Sitting on the crapper doing calculus. Shaving doing calculus. Doing calculus while listening to the radio, hearing what was going on in the war or, for preference, some classical music. Doing calculus while eating. Doing calculus while squeezing the toothpaste tube.

(quoted from Turbulence)

"He has a messy little beard, wears specs. Looks a bit peculiar. Holes in his suit jacket." She giggled. "You better watch out or that's what you will become."

"Why?" I asked, affronted.

"All you scientists end up that way."

"What do you mean?"

"You have no style. All you think about are your equations."

"Ah," I said, rising to the challenge. "That that is just it, don't you see? The style is in the equations. Some people write ugly proofs, others do it with panache. I like to think mine are as beautiful as, as -- well, anything!"

I watched her face become aghast. "Anything? Anything is not beautiful. Only special things are beautiful."

I felt embarrassed at my inability to express myself. "All right, Miss, if you say so. But one day I'll show you some of those equations and you will see what I mean."

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.

Contributed by Paul

The book missed the point that the final weather decision was made on foot of the meteorological report from Belmullet in the North West of Ireland which showed an approaching high and tilted the balance to D day being on June 6th. This is well documentated and indeed is celebrated in Belmullet annually. It showed there was a short window of opportunity which would be in the English Channel area on the 6th after the poor weather of the 5th. This was truly the deciding weather report.

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Works Similar to Turbulence
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser
  2. The Lady's Code by Samantha Saxon
  3. Shooting the Sun by Max Byrd
  4. The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw
  5. Verrechnet by Carl Djerassi / Isabella Gregor
  6. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  7. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  8. A Disappearing Number by Simon McBurney
  9. Calculus (Newton's Whores) by Carl Djerassi
  10. Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle Volume 1 by Neal Stephenson
Ratings for Turbulence:
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:
2.5/5 (2 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (2 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifWar, Future Prediction through Math, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Romance,
TopicAnalysis/Calculus/Differential, Fictional Mathematics,
MediumNovels,

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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)