a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Wild Numbers (1998)
Philibert Schogt
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors) and literati.

Most mathematicians dream of proving a terribly important result. In this novel, mathematician Isaac Swift thinks he has done just that: solved "Beauregard's Wild Number Problem". But is his proof correct, and is he guilty of plagarism?
Schogt (whose grandparents and an uncle on his father's side were all mathematicians) has written this novel that really focuses on the feelings and working environment of the research mathematician. The novel includes glimpses of Swift's childhood, such as this moving scene:

(quoted from The Wild Numbers)

That evening, I gathered all my courage and asked my father the forbidden question: "How much is five minus eight?"

"Negative three," came his voice, god-like from behind the newspaper. He usually did not like being disturbed while reading, but to my delight he folded the paper and, writing in the empty space in an automobile ad on the back page, showed me that there were numbers lower than zero, numbers with a minus written in front of them. I was shocked and trhilled by this new insight. Zero was no longer the absolute bottom of the arithmentical world, but the portal to an arithmentical underworld. It made such an impression on me that when my father laid an arm around my shoulders and told me that he was going to live somewhere else for a while, the news didn't really register.

Later we see the same fascination with mathematics leading to a romantic relationship, when the woman he is tutoring in statistics suddently glimpses some of the beauty of mathematics, and destroying it, when his obsession with his investigation into the wild numbers conjecture prevents the intimacy necessary to keep the relationship going.

First published in Dutch (as De wilde getallen) in 1998. The English translation appeared in 2000.

Contributed by anonymous visitor

"An excellent work! The mathematicians in this novel are portrayed as real people, not the stereotypical socially inept geniuses often depicted in literature. The story is a real page-turner; you won't be disappointed."

Contributed by anonymous visitor

"A very good campus novel. I rate it as somewhat mathematical, because I managed to follow the story (even the description of The Wild Numbers) even though I am not a mathematician. It's main quality is that -contrary to most campus novels - it stays short and simple, without trying to impress the reader. I guess this is the quality of mathematics in comparison to plilology. I definately enjoyed reading it."

Contributed by Reinhard

This author knows his mathematics. I love the description of the (fictional) wild numbers conjecture, which the hero thinks he solved. Very credible description also of the history of the problem, but just enough detail left out you can't actually start to work on it. But you feel you almost can.

Also great: the description of the ups and downs in the mathematical discovery process.

Contributed by Henk DL Hollmann

Most books that involve mathematics or mathematicians give me the shivers, annoy me, or even make me angry because they are so unrealistic. But this book was a pleasant surprise. Here you can catch a glimpse of what mathematicians do and how they do it, in a gripping story on human aspiration and desperation. And perhaps most telling: both me and my (definitively non-mathematical) partner read this book with interest and joy. An amazing debut by a young Dutch writer. Recommended!

Contributed by D.A. Danne

This was an exceptional work, and fun to read. Seldom am I attracted to these books as they typically portray a dismal, rainy like scenario surrounding the mathematicians working in small stuffy offices with stacks of paper and books on their credenzas. This was a page turner from page one, and I was prompted to awaken around 4:00 AM to read more. Thanks Mr. Schogt

Contributed by Anonymous

This was an amazing work of fiction! I have always hated math, but this? This changed my mind just a bit. I loved the characters and the way math was incorporated, and four years after reading the story I still find myself thinking about it! Definitely a worthwhile investment.

There is an interesting preprint on the arXiv database by Philibert Schogt in which he addresses the interesting connections between "the wild number problem" and reality. In brief, he explains that the book was originally going to be about a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, a real math problem. A friend dissuades him from this idea and so instead he invents the fictional "wild number problem" of the title (which was lucky, it turns out, since Wiles' proof of FLT might have negatively impacted the book if he hadn't). But, then mathematicians inspired by the novel invent a real version of the wild number problem! And so, the problem essentially changed from real to fiction, and then from fiction into reality. Cool!

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Works Similar to The Wild Numbers
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  2. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
  3. Time Bends (The Students Tale) in The Rags of Time by Maureen Howard
  4. Nagel im Himmel by Patrick Hofmann
  5. La Conjecture de Syracuse by Antoine Billot
  6. Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
  7. Goldman's Theorem by R.J. Stern
  8. Het gemillimeterde hoofd (The Cropped Head) by Gerrit Krol
  9. The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
  10. Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte
Ratings for The Wild Numbers:
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:
3.93/5 (18 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.2/5 (19 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Academia, Proving Theorems, Romance,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Fictional Mathematics,

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Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)