a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Fall of a Sparrow (1998)
Robert Hellenga

In this novel, a literature professor travels to Italy to testify at the trial of the terrorists who murdered his daughter in a 1980 train bombing. The only math in it appears because another one of his daughters curates an exhibit on chaos theory at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Florin Diacu, a mathematician who has written about chaos theory and so should be in a position to judge, says:

Contributed by Florin Diacu

You might want to add "The Fall of a Sparrow" by Robert Hellenga, a novel that contains an excellent, and quite long, description of chaos theory.

One role that chaos theory plays in the story is as a contemporary subject of research helping us to understand the world better. The surviving sister's feeling of excitement at being involved in it (even in a limited side role rather than as an active researcher) is specifically mentioned.

Presumably, the discussion of sensitive dependence on initial conditions and the tools we have developed to understand the structure of chaotic systems is meant to resonate with the tragedy that befell their family. Indeed, it is clear that the surviving family members are each struggling to find ways to deal with the situation. And, although the book does not say so in so many words, considering the universe as chaotic in the mathematical sense, that things do not happen for big reasons so much as because of tiny variations in initial conditions, contributes to that sister's healing.

My only complaint is that the book seems to go out of its way to avoid mentioning "math" or "mathematics". Chaos theory is presented as combining some computer science and some physics. For example, IBM is mentioned as a sponsor of the event (though they seem to want to avoid acknowledging that prediction of chaotic systems are beyond the power of their devices) and the mathematician Henri Poincaré is mentioned but is described as a "classical physicist".

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Works Similar to The Fall of a Sparrow
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Watt by Samuel Beckett
  2. Mefisto: A Novel by John Banville
  3. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  4. Herr Doctor's Wondrous Smile by Vladimir Tasic
  5. Nachman Burning by Leonard Michaels
  6. Nachman at the Races by Leonard Michaels
  7. Towel Season by Ron Carlson
  8. A Catastrophe Machine by Carter Scholz
  9. Mrs. Einstein by Anna McGrail
  10. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
Ratings for The Fall of a Sparrow:
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Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (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)