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The Phantom Scientist [Le Chercher Phantôme] (2013)
Robin Cousin

This graphic novel takes place at at "The Institute for the Study of Complex and Dynamic Systems", which facilitates interactions between researchers in different disciplines. Although none of the researchers inhabiting the fourth incarnation of the institute in this story is described as being a mathematician, several mathematical ideas are key to its plot. The mathematical ideas it utilizes are fractals, P vs. NP, the traveling salesman problem, and the Fibonacci sequence (which is not only shown to arise in natural objects but is also incorporated into the design of the institute itself).

Most of the characters in "The Phantom Scientist" are smart people who are trying to figure something out. As someone who likes to understand things and figure things out myself, that is an appealing feature of this book. I'm both hoping to see the characters succeed and interested in learning from them. Moreover, it is not only their scientific research that serves as motivation here. Before long, there are disappearances and deaths which add to the mystery and tension.

However, I cannot say that I liked the minimalistic drawings. Not only did they keep this book from having some of the visual beauty that I have seen in some other graphic novels, it also occasionally made it hard to follow since many of the characters look quite similar.

I should note that I did not read the original French publication from 2013 but rather the version published in 2023 by MIT Press (translated into English by Edward Gauvin). Also, let me acknowledge Dr. Allan Goldberg for suggesting that I consider adding it to this database.

There are a few more things I would like to say about the book, but they necessarily entail spoiling some of the surprises. So, if you have not yet read this book (and think you might), let me suggest that you stop reading now.

Warning: Spoilers Below.....
Warning: Spoilers Below.....
Warning: Spoilers Below.....
Warning: Spoilers Below.....
  • The story nicely illustrates the way that institutes like the one in this story can lead to scientific and mathematical discoveries. The researchers we get to know best are working on plant structure, robotics, (dis)proving P=NP, and predicting human behavior. Each of these seemingly different projects is affected by the researchers' interactions with each other.
  • But, one aspect of this goal of facilitating interactions is fictionalized almost to the point of parody. The director of the institute monitors the level of chaos at the institute and is charged with making sure that it is high enough to lead to useful research advances but not too high until the end of a predefined period. Then, as the session comes to an end, the chaos level is supposed to spike at which point all of the researchers are replaced with another group who join one by one. (The book begins at the transition between the third and fourth iterations. Furthermore, since the chaos levels get out of control during the fourth iteration, an armed "clean up" squad is brought in!)
  • The titular "phantom scientist" is a reclusive computer scientist who has published several proofs that P is not equal to NP and is disappointed that his results have not been accepted. In discussing this with a student he met in an internet chat room, he wishes that there was a computer program that could just check his proof so he would not be dependent on approval from "the scientific community". The student points out that such a program would only seem to be possible if P=NP was true. This somehow inspires the researcher who now instead proves that they are equal, and it is this advance that causes the "chaos level" at the institute to spike too soon. I have two concerns about this idea and the way it is presented:
    • It seems that his "proof" that P=NP consists of an algorithm that solves the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) for the buildings at the Institute. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would not think that the existence of an algorithm for a particular instance (with fixed distances and fixed number of "cities") would be sufficient to conclude anything about the whole class of problems. (The class is defined by asymptotics for large n and makes no sense if n is fixed, right?)
    • The linguist character points out a sort-of "Catch-22" problem with his idea, but his goal of trying to automate proof checking to avoid the tyranny of "the scientific community" is never questioned. I worry that this may leave the reader with the mistaken (IMHO) impression that there really is a problem in the mathematical community of people with valid proofs of important theorems being ghosted by the rest of the world who refuses to acknowledge their validity.
  • Nobody in the book seems to notice the irony that in proving P=NP is true, the character actually showed that the rest of the mathematical community was right all along to have rejected his "proofs" that they were not equal!
  • At one point another character very quickly comments that fractal geometry is behind the equality of P and NP. In particular, the set of all possible paths in TSP apparently takes the shape of a fractal and this allows one to algorithmically find the optimal one. This is a bit of "fictional mathematics", which is why I've selected that tag in "topics" below.
  • The book ends somewhat suddenly during a lecture about leaf structure. Looking around at reviews, I see that other people also found the ending somewhat abrupt and confusing. I am not sure what the author intended, but I can tell you what it meant to me: The linguist, who is still obsessed with the various mysteries that occurred at the fourth institute before it was shut down, attends a colleague's lecture. The idea of the lecture concerned leaf structure being related to origami and the constraint of fitting into the bud. I think we are supposed to recognize along with the linguist that the mysteries from the institute are unsolvable while the leaf idea is cool and productive. In that sense, it is an "upbeat" ending.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Phantom Scientist [Le Chercher Phantôme]
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Strange Attractors by Charles Soule (author) / Greg Scott (Illustrator)
  2. Big Numbers by Alan Moore / Bill Sienkiewicz
  3. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
  4. The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell
  5. Storm: The Chronicles of Pandarve by Martin Lodewijk (writer) / Don Lawrence (artist)
  6. Tre per zero by T. Sclavi (writer) / B. Brindisi (artist)
  7. A Calculated Man by Paul Tobin (writer) / Alberto Alburquerque (artist)
  8. To The Power Against by Carrie Smith (writer) / Stephanie Lantry (Artist)
  9. Strange Attractors by Rebecca Goldstein
  10. The New Warriors (Issue #4) by Fabian Nicieza (writer) / Mark Bagley (artist)
Ratings for The Phantom Scientist [Le Chercher Phantôme]:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifAcademia, Proving Theorems,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Real Mathematics, Fictional Mathematics, Chaos/Fractals,
MediumGraphic Novel/Comic Book/Manga,

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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)