a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|The plot of this work of historical fiction is based on the following historical fact: A team of British WAAFs stationed in Belgium used mathematics and slide rules to try to determine the location of the launch sites of the Nazi's horrifying V2 rockets that were causing devastation in London. Speed and accuracy of their computations were of the greatest importance.
Or so they believed. As you can read in history books (or begin to work out about half-way through Harris' novel), even when they were fast and accurate, they were not able to correctly identify the launch sites. The idea was a failure. And, on the other hand, the V2 program was also a failure. Though Werner von Braun's rockets were blazingly fast, making them dangerous and hard to defend against, they had a high failure rate, rarely hit their intended targets, and were a huge drain on German resources.
Before I read it, I thought this sounded like a very strange subject for a work of fiction. Why choose to write about an incident that both sides in the conflict would rather forget, a contest nobody "won"? I did not have high hopes that I would like the book. Indeed, many of the reviews on Amazon, even those by readers who say they usually like Robert Harris, are negative. But, reading it changed my mind. The author's attention to detail make it seem real, and the pacing of the narrative make it compelling. In the end, although the outcome is no surprise (Spoiler Alert: The Nazis lose the war ; ), I really enjoyed the book and recommend it...not only because of the math.
One of the book's two protagonists is "Kay" Caton-Walsh who volunteers to be one of the British women in Belgium applying mathematics to radar data in order to try to identify V2 launch sites that can be bombed. The other is a German named Graf working under von Braun. (The book says that looking at Graf you might think he was a "maths teacher", until you see the oil under his fingernails and realize that he is an engineer.) Chapters alternate between Kay's story and Graf's.
Math mostly appears in Kay's story. Nobody in the book is a mathematician in the sense of having a degree in mathematics, but these women use trigonometry and quadratic polynomials (since the V2 was ballistic, following a parabolic arc, for most of its journey). So, I am labeling this with the "female mathematician" tag. Paragraphs spread throughout the book explicitly show either the WAAFs being trained in mathematics or performing these computations. Graf's story also mentions math a few times (for instance, von Braun shows them equations).
I'd like to be able to say that this book shows that math is useful, however in this particular instance it was not. The V2 rockets were so unreliable and subject to so many unplanned course alterations during the time that the rocket was firing, there was no practical way that anyone could have determined the launch sites given the data that they had.
Still, I recommend this book. I enjoyed it as a story, a odd sort of violent and drawn-out "meet cute" for Kay and Graf. And, even if the math does not turn out to have been useful in this instance, the mathematical scenes are nicely described and completely avoid many of the usual mathematician stereotypes found in fiction.
|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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)