|Michele Benzi wrote to recommend that I add this classic novel, which was critically praised when it first appeared and then fell in esteem due to accusations of plagiarism. Benzi writes:
I was surprised not to find this "Great Book" in your database,
as it contains a number of references to mathematics (and to
mechanics, astronomy, engineering and many other fields of
knowledge). Sterne mentions Archimedes, Stevin, Tartaglia,
Galileo, Torricelli, Descartes, the Bernoullis (he actually
quotes a paper from 'Acta Eruditorum' from 1696) and the
Marquis de l'Hopital. There's even a discussion of the
cycloid, which was one of the hottest mathematical topics
in the XVII and XVIII centuries (see Euler's frontispice
of his 1744 book on the calculus of variations).
Here is the passage from the book that concerns cycloids and the work of the Bernoulis. As you can see, the joke is that knowledge of cycloids would be needed to build the bridge according to plan, but his uncle knows only about parablolas:
|(quoted from Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,
For a whole week after he was determined in his mind to have one of that
particular construction which is made to draw back horizontally, to hinder
a passage; and to thrust forwards again to gain a passage--of which sorts
your worship might have seen three famous ones at Spires before its
destruction--and one now at Brisac, if I mistake not;--but my father
advising my uncle Toby, with great earnestness, to have nothing more to do
with thrusting bridges--and my uncle foreseeing moreover that it would but
perpetuate the memory of the Corporal's misfortune--he changed his mind for
that of the marquis d'Hopital's invention, which the younger Bernouilli has
so well and learnedly described, as your worships may see--Act. Erud. Lips.
an. 1695--to these a lead weight is an eternal balance, and keeps watch as
well as a couple of centinels, inasmuch as the construction of them was a
curve line approximating to a cycloid--if not a cycloid itself.
My uncle Toby understood the nature of a parabola as well as any man in
England--but was not quite such a master of the cycloid;--he talked however
about it every day--the bridge went not forwards.--We'll ask somebody about
it, cried my uncle Toby to Trim.
This is certainly an explicit reference to mathematics, though I remain unsure whether it is enough to justify the inclusion of "Tristram Shandy" in this database. Michele's suggests that even more mathematics can be found in a diagram illustrating the non-linearity of the author's style of narration. Personally, I think that Michele may be giving the author too much credit here, reading some deep mathematics into a simple joke...but since he is a math professor at Emory and as qualified as I to comment on these things, I will simply let him speak for himself (and let you decide for yourself):
But that's not all. Sterne seems to have somehow foreshadowed
the notion a non-rectifiable curve, like the von Koch 'snowflake';
he even has a page where he draws a few curves joining two
points A and B; one is a straight line segment, the others are
almost fractal-like curves, and he uses these as an analogy to
describe his narrative style, full of digressions in all
directions, like a curve without tangent at any point (some
of the curves resemble Brownian motion). I found these to be
extraordinary for an XVIII writer -- a postmodern author well
ahead of the times.
This book was a number one best seller among the educated classes in England in the 18th C and catapulted its author to fame. It is a complicated send up of many branches of knowledge and about knowledge and narrative itself. Also funny. I would have given it a 5 for literary quality except that I don’t think it is the “best” work ever—there can be only one of those and in English Shakespeare eclipses everything else.