a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Moby Dick (1851)
Herman Melville

I honestly had no idea that there was anything mathematical about this classic novel until Allan Goldberg suggested I look at Sara Hart's article on the subject in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics.

Of course, I knew the basic plot concerning a deck-hand on a whaling ship whose captain is obsessed with hunting a certain white whale. There's nothing about mathematics in that description. But, I learned from Hart's article that Melville snuck a lot of references to math into it, perhaps just to show off his knowledge.

A few examples include:

  • Ahab offering a loyal cabin boy the complement: “True art thou, lad, as the circumference to its centre.”
  • The shape of the whale's head is described as follows:

    (quoted from Moby Dick )

    Regarding the Sperm Whale’s head as a solid oblong, you may, on an inclined plane, sideways divide it into two quoins whereof the lower is the bony structure, forming the cranium and jaws, and the upper an unctuous mass wholly free from bones.

    with this footnote explaining the word "quoins":

    (quoted from Moby Dick )

    Quoin is not a Euclidean term. It belongs to the pure nautical mathematics. I know not that it has been defined before. A quoin is a solid which differs from a wedge in having its sharp end formed by the steep inclination of one side, instead of the mutual tapering of both sides.

  • The whale's ability to make sense of the world seen through two eyes on opposite sides of its head is said to be like "simultaneously [going] through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid."
  • Most entertainingly (IMHO), there is this discussion of the shape of the "try-pots" which the narrator relates to the tautochrone:

    (quoted from Moby Dick )

    During the night-watches some cynical old sailors will crawl into them and coil themselves away there for a nap. While employed in polishing them — one man in each pot, side by side — many confidential communications are carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.

To me it comes across as almost funny that the crew of this whaling ship seems to know so much and talk so much about mathematics.

Contributed by Allan Goldberg

I feel that Melville used the scientific descriptions (particularly biology and mathematics), not merely to be pedantic, but to provide the reader with the necessary tools to understand Captain Ahab.

Initially, at the beginning of the voyage , Ahab insisted on scientific rigor, in all of its forms, in himself and his crew, when he charted a course in search of the whale.

Queequeg even tattooed some scientific precepts onto to his body (as if they were “written in stone”)

As Ahab’s obsession with the whale grew, he then, by contrast, progressively abandoned science as he became more unhinged.

BTW, some recent research into whale pod behavior mimics the collective behavior of whales as described in the novel.

Melville, being an experienced sailor, and a keen observer, tried (and succeeded) to fully describe the scenes as they unfolded using actual description and metaphor.

He wished to tell an interesting tale (based on the true story of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex) and to provide a complete autobiographical account of his experiences aboard ship.

IMHO, everyone should read this book.

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Works Similar to Moby Dick
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
  2. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
  3. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  4. The Odd Women by George Gissing
  5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  6. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  7. Royal Highness (Königliche Hoheit) by Thomas Mann
  8. Geometry in the South Pacific by Sylvia Warner
  9. Sylvie and Bruno Concluded by Lewis Carroll
  10. Round the Moon by Jules Verne
Ratings for Moby Dick :
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Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

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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)