Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Mathematics and Fiction

Kindly forwarded by Felix: the announcement for Mathematics and Fiction, a themed weekend conference run by the British Society for the History of Mathematics which will "will explore the various uses of mathematics in fiction, novels about mathematics or mathematicians, and novels based on mathematical structures". Here are some quick thoughts and associations arising from the topic list:

Melanie Bayley: "Free will and statistics in Middlemarch and Jude the Obscure".

This explores the relation of these novels to "statistical fatalism", a 19th century intellectual scare:

As more and more statistics were gathered during the first half of the nineteenth century, and crime figures were shown to be roughly constant from year to year, influential commentators began to announce that statistics were driving people to behave against their will. Mad as it may seem, the public seized on the idea that people would act in a particular way to fulfil a statistical quota.

See Society prepares the crimes in The taming of chance (Ian Hacking, Cambridge University Press, 1990, ISBN 0521388848) which mentions the particular influence of the Belgian social statistician Adolphe Quetelet.

David Bellos: author, Georges Perec: a life in words, on the Oulipo.

I'll refrain from a wealth of digressions here: this refers to the "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle" group of writers and mathematicians that specialised in bizarrely creative works produced under various constraints of style or content, such as Perec's novella Les revenentes, in which "e" is the only vowel allowed. See this section of Emily Apter's book The translation zone for a section of Ian Monk's translation, The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.

William Goldbloom Bloch: "Navigating Labyrinths in Jorge Luis Borges' story The Library of Babel".

The Library of Babel is perhaps [Borges'] most famous story, and in its scant seven pages, he deploys simple combinatorial ideas to help create a miasmic atmosphere in the service of raising issues about the meaningfulness of our existence.

See The Library of Babel for a translation by James Irby; as the Wikipedia article explains, the Library contains books comprising all possible permutations of text, thus all possible truths, untruths and gibberish. Another Borges story, The Book of Sand, offers much the same in a single infinite book; you can read the text if you care to reconstruct it via Maximus Clarke's hypertext puzzle.

Andrew Crumey, novelist, author of Sputnik Caledonia and Mobius Dick

See the Guardian reviews It's Scotland, but not as we know it and Spatial awareness, and Meltdown moments.

Marilyn Gaull, "Romantic numeracy"

The paper covers a range of allusions from statistics to time, geometry and accounting, even the sizing of clothes and interpreting temperature, all new to fiction during this period as they were new to the culture. My thesis would be that novelists such as Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott used contemporary mathematical concepts and applications to create an illusion of fact in their fiction, which also helped their readers learn and adapt to mathematics. In turn, mathematicians used literary examples and fictional style to explain mathematical concepts culminating in Russell's Tristram Shandy paradox.

Dorothy Ker, composer, "the 19th step: Borges, Maths and Music"

the19thstep project brought three artists together with Marcus du Sautoy to explore Borges' virtual universe. Composer Dorothy Ker introduces the project and talks about how working with a mathematician stimulated new ways of thinking about space in live performance.

Donald Knuth on his novel Surreal Numbers.

See Knuth's own page Surreal Numbers: How two ex-students turned on to pure mathematics and found total happiness. Knuth is an eminent computer scientist whose work explores the skill and art of programming. His Metafont system, which defines fonts mathematically, thus enabling continuous morphing of fonts through a passage - as in Carroll's The Mouse's Tale - has given rise to some delightful typographic explorations such as Daytar's Surrealey, "The poem/song Die Loreley by Heinrich Heine in a form which was inspired by the works of Guillaume Apollinaire".

Nikita Lalwani, novelist, author of Gifted

Nikita Lalwani's Gifted tells the story of a maths prodigy conflicted by her situation as the daughter of Asian immigrants in Cardiff. It was longlisted for the Booker, and won the Desmond Elliott prize (whose brief is to reward debut novels that combine "intelligence" and "broad appeal"). See the Guardian review, Freedom by numbers.

Ann Lingard, novelist, "The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes (with a nervous nod towards quasicrystals)".

Ann Lingard ... is founder of SciTalk, the free national resource that helps fiction-writers to find and talk to scientists, engineers and mathematicians
One of the characters in Ann Lingard’s fifth novel is a mathematician, who works on quasicrystals. Why? Ann will talk about the fun and challenges of making this decision.

The Embalmer's Book of Recipes page at Ann Lingard's website has an interesting tour of the cultural and scientific background to the novel, such as the strange anatomical dioramas of Frederik Ruysch and Frans Lemmens' remarkable aerial photos of Dutch tulip fields

Mark McCartney, "James Clerk Maxwell: A Poetic Life"

I'd run into one or two of Maxwell's poems, particularly his Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk ...

The tendrils of my soul are twined
With thine, though many a mile apart.
And thine in close coiled circuits wind
Around the needle of my heart.

Constant as Daniel, strong as Grove.
Ebullient throughout its depths like Smee,
My heart puts forth its tide of love,
And all its circuits close in thee.

O tell me, when along the line
From my full heart the message flows,
What currents are induced in thine?
One click from thee will end my woes.

Through many a volt the weber flew,
And clicked this answer back to me;
I am thy farad staunch and true,
Charged to a volt with love for thee.

... but I didn't know just how prolific he was. See PoemHunter for 44 of them (unfortunately minus date and context); the whole batch is available as a PDF download. This Selected Poetry of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) page has a few with in-references to academia and physics explained. James Clerk Maxwell: Maker of Waves at the Victorian Web quotes Peter Guthrie Tait, the Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University:

"Maxwell's early skill in versification developed itself in later years into real poetic talent. But it always had an object and often veiled the keenest satire under an air of charming innocence and naive admiration. No living man has shown a greater power of condensing the whole substance of a question into a few clear and compact sentences than Maxwell exhibits in his verses"

BTW, while the telegrapher poem is whimsical, romance by telegraph was as real as a phenomenon in its time as that by Internet now; see Tom Standage's excellent book The Victorian Internet (Phoenix, 1999, ISBN-10: 0753807033), which explores the telegraph/Internet analogy in depth.

Scarlett Thomas, novelist, author of PopCo and The End of Mr Y.

There are summaries of PopCo and The End of Mr Y at Alex Kasman's Mathematical Fiction site, which is a large browsable compilation of the many works relating to mathematics.
- Ray

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