a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Leonard Michaels' recurring character of UCLA mathematician Nachman faces questions of infidelity when he learns of the extra-marital affairs of his friend Norbert and Norbert's wife.
It is somewhat comforting to see that Nachman, often presented in these stories as being incredibly anti-social, even has friends. (In fact, the character of Norbert appeared briefly in Nachman from Los Angeles as a colleague when Nachman was a grad student.) However, Nachman here still appears particularly naive and fragile, and I cannot help but feel that we are supposed to somehow connect these character traits to his being a mathematician.
Of course, the purpose of the story is to discuss romance, social boundaries, psychology, etc. However, the purpose of this website is to discuss the mathematics in the story. So, even though there is very little of it, I will focus my attention on that bit in the remainder of my discussion.
When Nachman is stuck in LA traffic, he realizes that it is a perfect opportunity to do mathematics and begins to reach for a pencil and paper. (However, as he shortly witnesses his best friend's wife kissing another man on the street, he never gets to do any.) In fact, one of the things I do like about the job of being an academic mathematician is that it is possible to work on my research anywhere. Unlike my wife, a biologist whose work must be done in a laboratory, I can make progress on my research while sitting on a beach or walking through a forest.
To emphasize the connection between Nachman's feelings about infidelity and mathematics, the author includes a ``flashback'' scene in which he is a young boy. His great aunt is about to begin teaching him a mathematics lesson, but she begins by correcting his spelling (he has written "mathamatics" at the top of the page):
In the story, we also see Nachman opening his mail. He gets a request to read and report on a draft of a mathematics textbook, an offer for a job at a defense contractor (paying 10 times as much as his institute salary), and an invitation to speak at a conference (in mathematical physics, which is not his area of expertise). It seems strange that this are coming to his home. Such offers more frequently come to the departmental office or by e-mail. However, these seem like reasonable things for him to be receiving -- not very different than what I receive and I think Nachman (who is supposedly quite famous) would probably receive many such requests.
I'm not too fond of the closing passage in which Nachman ridicules the idea that math is a ``social creation''. The suggestion is that since he works on his math in isolation (sometimes waking in the night to write down a proof that has come to him), it is not a social thing. This same passage suggests that progress is not made by reasoning but by epiphany. (``Nachman had never even met a mathematician who could tell you how a solution came to him or her. It just came or it didn't.'') Of course, the author is saying these things more to comment on the character and his thoughts about infidelity, but these are misconceptions about mathematics that I'd rather not see promoted even for the sake of the art of such a talented writer.
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|(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)