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Signal to Noise (1999)
Eric S. Nylund
Highly Rated!

The protagonist in this science fiction novel, Jack Potter, is a tenure track math professor in a future where San Francisco has sunk under the ocean, all non-academic employment in the United States is essentially slavery, and academics communicate to each other through a direct mental connection. Although he is mostly worried about obtaining grants so that he can secure tenure, his research into cryptography and especially his attempt to extract meaningful information from apparently random signals has attracted the attention of the government, and his "uncle" who works for "the other side". It also allows him to communicate with an alien named "Wheeler", light-years away, who is interested in establishing a business relationship with a human.

The author has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a master's degree in physics. This gives him enough mathematical background that he can toss around some real mathematical terms. Some readers have complained that there is too much mathematics in the narrative, but in my opinion, the main problem is that it is not used sensibly.

One idea of the book which may be artistic, but which I found frustrating, is the idea that in the future we will interface to our computers through a "metaphor". For instance, at one point Potter seems to be watching Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar at Woodstock, but this is just his computer (through a "bubble" interface) trying to suggest to him that he needs to be looking for signals in a broader way:

(quoted from Signal to Noise)

Bruner's technique used mathematical expansions of functions like sine and cosine to assemble noise into coherency. Wheeler's signal was an expansion of hyperbolic tangent. Jack had run through hundreds of different functions and had never found another match. What had he overlooked?

The kid on the electric guitar was on fire. His fingers were a blur on the steel strings; he twisted the neck of the guitar, made it scream. An aura pulsed around him, shimmered and jumped in response to the notes that he picked and pounded and made waver and wail through the night air -- the stars overhead rippled.

His music wasn't just notes, but combinations of notes played simultaneously that sounded richer than the sum of its parts, chords.

Jack could feel a connection building; that was the advantage of a true bubble instead of the modified helmets they had used -- not only were they faster, but bubbles teased intuitions from their subconscious cocoons.

He opened a link and rendered the noise in the isosotope into stars. They blinked on and off, looking more like snow than then night.

"Cool", the hippie next to him said. "Good dope, huh?"

"The best," Jack replied and examined the static.

Bruner's tecnique expanded a single mathematical function. It was one note filtered from the noise. But Jack should have been looking for chords too. He could add or subtract functions or delve into the nonlinear -- multiply them or use one function as the argument of another, the exponent of cosine or the gamma function cubed. There were endless possibilities.

At one point, Potter is trying to decipher a signal he has received from a new alien species. Nylund wanted to build on the classic cliche of aliens first communicating through elementary mathematics (since we suspect that "1+1=2" will be universally understood) by having this alien message encode an entire proof of Cauchy's integral formula from complex analysis. (Actually, from the description it sounds more like the Residue theorem, which is a corollary of Cauchy's integral formula.) It is nice to see this theorem mentioned in a work of fiction, but it is really rather difficult to believe that this would work as a first message. For one thing, to write out the proof of either Cauchy's integral formula or the Residue Theorem would require far too many symbols to make a good FIRST message intended to be understood by a stranger. If we encode the integral symbol as "0101" and dz as "1010" and the variable z as "1100" etc then the result would be something so long and complicated that there would be many, many different reasonable ways to "decode" it. Moreover, the notation for something as complicated as calculus is likely to be unrecognizably different from one species to another.

Okay, perhaps I'm being too picky. There is a lot of mathematics (too much for some readers and not well used in the opinion of others). Aside from that, the book is fast paced, imaginitive and enjoyable.

BTW, the title is obviously a reference to the common expression from information theory "Signal to Noise Ratio".

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Works Similar to Signal to Noise
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem? by Rudy Rucker
  2. Love and a Triangle by Stanley Waterloo
  3. Nymphomation by Jeff Noon
  4. The Flight of the Dragonfly (aka Rocheworld) by Robert L. Forward
  5. Pop Quiz by Alex Kasman
  6. Conversations on Mathematics with a Visitor from Outer Space by David Ruelle
  7. In the River by Justin Stanchfield
  8. Eye of the Beholder by Alex Kasman
  9. Numbers by Dana Dane
  10. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
Ratings for Signal to Noise:
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:
3/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.25/5 (4 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAcademia, Aliens,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Analysis/Calculus/Differential,

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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)