a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|This avant-garde “novel” mostly mostly takes the form of a lengthy non-fictional essay linking scientific/mathematical discoveries of the 20th Century to tragic human consequences. It is like a dark version of the documentary series Connections, with just a tiny bit of fiction thrown in.
The opening chapter, which focuses on the development of powerful poisons from such seemingly innocuous origins as an artist’s pigment, sets the tone. The scientists suffer and die, Jewish concentration camp victims suffer and die, German families and high ranking Nazis commit suicide. There is no joy, but also no math and barely any fiction. (The author claims that there is one fictional paragraph in this chapter, but I am not sure which one it is.)
The next chapter concerns Karl Schwarzschild’s exact mathematical solution to the equations of general relativity. Like Schwarzschild Radius, it focuses on the horrors of World War I, Schwarzschild’s diseased body, and metaphorical interpretations of the “black hole” he discovered. Again, I recognize the vast majority of what is written here as being non-fictional, but I will suppose (since the author claims that the amount of fiction increases throughout the book) that there is again at least a bit of fiction mixed in with the facts.
The third chapter is like a joint biography of mathematicians Shinichi Mochizuki and Alexander Grothendieck, focusing not only on their important contributions to number theory and algebraic geometry but also on the way they both abandoned their math research and adopted a reclusive lifestyle. Again, since the vast majority of the material is factual and presented as if it was a non-fictional essay, it is difficult to tell what (if anything) here should be considered to be “fiction”. (Labatut does convey that Mochizuki’s work on the abc-conjecture is controversial, but seems to imply that his proof is correct and under-appreciated by other mathematicians. That is an opinion, one not widely-believed in the mathematics community or well-supported by evidence in the book, but not in itself fiction IMHO.)
The book now takes a long detour into a discussion of the early history of quantum mechanics. That portion is “mathematical” since the distinction between Heisenberg’s numerical formulation and Schrödinger’s wave version on which it focuses is essentially the difference between using matrices (of real numbers) and using differential operators (with complex eigenvalues). It also includes the second most “fictional” portion of the book since the portrayal of Heisenberg’s matrix epiphany as the result of a fever induced delusion is (AFAIK) the author’s own creation. The book delves into wave-particle duality (with a discussion of Louis de Broglie’s contributions) and the epistemological questions that quantum mechanics raises (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the Copenhagen interpretation, and Einstein’s objections).
As if fiction were a minor imperfection in the crystal structure of the first chapter that has grown and destabilized the historical nature of the work, the last chapter is the only one that features a character, the night gardener, who presumably is entirely fictional:
This book has received many glowing reviews from professional critics and authors. The blend of historical fact with just a tiny bit of (unidentified) fiction is being hailed as a brilliant innovation. Personally, I would prefer if the boundaries between fact and fiction were more clear so that people are not misled into believing a falsehood. It is because the book is really a work of non-fiction with only a tiny bit of fiction sprinkled here and there that I have given this a rating of "3" for literary value. I do not mean to imply that it is not well-written. It is, but it is really not a work of fiction.
The opening chapters of this book were emotionally potent, informative, and thought provoking. The end of the book, though, really didn’t work for me. Presumably, the section on quantum mechanics is the inspiration for the book’s English title and, appearing just before the end, is intended to be a sort of climax of the contrast between the wonderful discoveries and their horrific consequences. Perhaps it is because this is the part of the book that is closest to my own “area of expertise”, but for me it was more of an anti-climax. The portrayal of the conflict between Heisenberg and Schrödinger as an epic intellectual battle was hard to take seriously since (as I know and the book later acknowledges) the two formulations are essentially equivalent. That the intrinsic properties of matter which we take for granted at the macroscopic level (like position and speed) are either undeterminable using our current knowledge, intrinsically unknowable, or not at all meaningful for elementary particles is a question that was raised by quantum mechanics, and is still a matter of debate to some extent, but is really only a matter of academic significance. The book begins with truly horrific stories from the World Wars, moves on to the personal lives of two individual mathematicians which some might view as tragic, and concludes with this epistemological issue which really does not matter on the human scale. I suppose it may be that I am supposed to see this final problem as the source of all the others, but I don't. So, the book fizzled out near the end for me.
It was first published in Spanish (the Dutch born author lives in Chile) in 2020 and its English translation was published in 2021.
|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)