a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors).
|This is is graphic novel in which a mathematics student seeks the help of a seemingly insane genius who claims he has been using chaos theory to save the city of New York from disaster for decades.
Heller Wilson contacts Doctor Spencer Brownfield who once worked for the math department where he is pursuing a PhD in the hopes that he can help him to finish his thesis. Instead, the old man recruits Heller to help with seemingly bizarre projects -- pouring paint at the entrance to Grand Central Station, collecting garbage and piling it up near Grant's Tomb, etc. -- which Brownfield claims he has determined mathematically necessary to keep the city functioning. Of course, it never really explains how this works, but we are meant to understand that these small actions have large consequences, like the famous "butterfly effect" of chaotic dynamical systems.
As Heller's comment above suggests suggests, there is something fantastical about how well Brownfield's methods seem to work in this graphic novel. Because of their complexity and because of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, these systems are difficult to understand or control. In some instances, we are meant to imagine that the character is surveying a complicated scene -- illustrated in the book as if a laser beam were hitting all of the key elements like a pinball bouncing off of bumpers and relaying all of the information back -- and then able to figure out exactly what small change would be necessary to steer it in a certain direction. Fun to look at and think about, but difficult to believe.
In fact, chaotic dynamical systems and complexity theory are real areas of research, and I would argue that they are important. Merely understanding that these complicated systems can be produced by simple and deterministic rules is an important observation, even if one is not able to do anything with it. But, in some instances it is also possible to use the information. Perhaps my favorite application is the method of low-energy transfer for steering unmanned space vehicles developed by JPL mathematician Edward Belbruno
This is a beautifully produced work of art: the illustration, the binding, the mathematical diagrams (which were done by Robert Saywitz), the whole package. In addition, it is a "love song" to both New York and mathematics. Some reviewers have compared it to the movie Pi, and I can certainly see that it bears some slight resemblance to that. However, unlike that film which I jokingly suggest has the moral "it is better to have a lobotomy than to do math", this is more "upbeat" and has a positive message.
BTW The technical term "strange attractor" is clearly very appealing to authors. This is, in fact, the third work in this database to use it for a title. (See also here and here.) This is probably because everyone knows the words "strange" and "attract" and so it is not necessary to be an expert to get an idea of what it means. If you are interested in knowing the actual definition, however, you can read about it here.
|More information about this work can be found at www.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.)
Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books
let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.
(Maintained by Alex Kasman,
College of Charleston)
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)