a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|This short story begins with a quote from Philip E.B. Jourdain's essay "The Nature of Mathematics". In the quote, he explains how in the process of carrying out a complicated computation, one may want to "neglect quantities which embarrass the combinations if it be foreseen that these quantities cannot by reason of their small value produce more than a trifling error in the result of the calculations". In the story, as with so much fiction, this is applied to the case of a mathematician who is ignoring his life/reality/his wife.
Professor Arnold's midlife crisis seems to have begun when he heard about Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Thus began his obsession with finding a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis (arguably, the next most famous open problem of number theory after FLT). However, his research does not appear to be working and the hints from his wife about her discontent are getting so blatant that even he is having trouble ignoring them.
Although it has a decent description of the Riemann Hypothesis for a work of fiction, it also makes a number of small errors elsewhere in the story. For instance, it refers to the “x, y, z of the Cartesian plane", and presents a strange apparently nonsensical discussion of “the arrow of time” (see below). More significantly, it repeats and therefore contributes to a number of unjustified prejudices against mathematicians (the “old saws” about being driven crazy by math research and only doing good work when young which do not seem to be supported by any real evidence despite their popularity).
The story also discusses in detail Poincare's definition and discovery of Fuchsian functions. This is obviously inspired by an essay which Poincare wrote on the creative process for psychologists which discusses this particular topic.
The conclusion of the story involves Arnold either going mad and thinking that he has -- or perhaps actually -- "solving" the problem of the arrow of time. I suppose this is meant to be more of a metaphor than any literal mathematics, since I was not able to make any sense out of it. However, as I've recently read other stories that really do address the question of the arrow of time in a more enlightening way (see Boltzmann's Ghost), I couldn't help but be disappointed by this.
Still, none of this detracts much from the story's obvious literary merits; it is a well-told, melancholy story. It was published in Kane's collection Bending Heaven.
|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)