I came home from the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Francisco with a sack of new math-related books, about a dozen I think. Most were books of actual math, of the sort you probably imagine me reading. Books of problems, small textbooks of one sort or another, expository work, that sort of thing. But two of my new treasures belong to a genre that I didn’t really know existed until I saw them: mathematics-themed fiction.
When I saw Riot at the Calc Exam and Other Mathematically Bent Fiction (written by Colin Adams, published by the American Mathematical Society) and Reality Conditions: Short Mathematical Fiction (written by Alex Kasman, published by the Mathematics Association of America), I greedily snapped them up. I’ve been very busy lately with multiple active research projects, but I’ve been stealing a few minutes here and there, reading a story on the bus once and a while and that, and now I’ve finally guilty-pleasured my way through.
Riot at the Calc Exam is a funny book. The author plays everything for laughs, and there’s a lot to laugh at. “The S.S. Riemann”, a mathematical Titanic story. Self-help for overcoming math anxiety. Personal ads for mathematicians. “The Integral”, a bizarre riff on the Saw genre of movies. And, of course, the title track, the tale of a calculus exam gone very very wrong. It happens that I already knew the author, Colin Adams, as a mathematician (I from time to time do some work in knot theory, his area of expertise), and I consider him one of the funniest mathematicians I have ever met. This book bears that out.
(My favorite line from a Colin Adams lecture I once heard: “…Thistlethwaite, one of the biggest names in knot theory, weighing in at 14 letters…”)
The stories in Kasman’s Reality Conditions are of a different sort. More literary, whatever that means. There’s a story of a mathematician who goes to a desert island in search of the reason why mathematical ideas show up so often in real-life questions and in the inner workings of the universe. A comic-type origin story of Topology Man and Homotopy Girl. A satellite that arrives from a distant alien race and broadcasts cutting-edge math questions. There are murder mysteries and even a horror story (“the object”) of which I dare not say more. There’s humor, sure, but not wacky-zany stuff. Funny like This American Life can be funny, say, funny-poignant. The title story, of a graduate student who comes just short of mathematical greatness, broke my heart a little bit. Lots of sophisticated mathematics gets thrown around, some of it genuine and some it chalked up to artistic license, but there are very good afternotes to explain which are which.
Riot was written for mathematicians and the people who love them, to have a laugh at all that is wacky in mathematics, while Reality Conditions was written for everyone, but especially I think students of mathematics or interested bystanders, to illuminate a world and a way of thinking which all too often seems very mysterious.
You know how sometimes when you read a book, or watch a play, or hear a song, or see a painting, you can’t help wishing you could do that? I had that feeling with both of these books, for rather different reasons.
Colin Adams’ Riot taps into the intrinsic humor of mathematics education and the nature of the profession. I think there’s a lot more intrinsic humor in mathematics than many people expect. It’s full of a majestic beauty that most people assume they won’t like, full of strange words and strange uses of familiar words that make it seem a foreign language, full of formalism and esoteric conventions; it’s like classical music in that way. Mathematics is still looking for its Victor Borge.
But if I write just one collection of short stories in my life, I would want it to be like Reality Conditions. I want to be doing that, creating art that give mathematicians some perspective on what it is they’re doing and, more importantly, give nonmathematicians some insight into what math is, who studies it and why, and what it has to do with “life”.
I don’t yet know how big the world of mathematical fiction is, or how big it’s going to get, but I wish it well. Mathematics and the things traditionally known as the creative arts (poetry, music, fiction, etc.) might seem disjoint, but in fact there is a lot of interesting interplay just waiting to be explored. Art and math have a lot to say about one another.
The fact that these two collections display so totally different takes on “mathematical fiction” says pretty clearly that there’s a lot of room for more.
I firmly believe that mathematics has a beauty which is distinct from its usefulness. So it should be possible for people to get some appreciation of the soul of mathematics in some way other than a decade of experience as a mathematician. Mathematical fiction in general and Reality Conditions in particular might be some progress on those lines.
Ask the Audience:
If you have read any of these stories, what did you think? I am very interested in how mathematicians and nonmathematicians respond to these pieces. Have you read any other noteworthy mathematical fiction or poetry?
I can’t mention Colin Adams without mentioning this classic exchange, attributed to Adams and a calculus student, though I concede that it may be apocryphal.
Student: Professor, what is your favorite kind of math?
Professor: Knot theory.
Student: Me neither!