Of Phrases and Variables | Math ∞ Weblog

This text was written by Gregory Thole, a graduate scholar in arithmetic at Boston School. If you happen to’d like to put in writing for Math-Weblog.com as effectively, please electronic mail us at [email protected].

And what was he?
Forsooth, a terrific arithmetician.
-Shakespeare Othello, I.i

Maybe it shouldn’t be stunning, contemplating the huge libraries of printed works, that arithmetic ought to seem topically in works of fiction, however anybody who has sat by means of an introductory course in algebra can perceive the issue that an writer might need in fascinating a reader if the topic is predominantly mathematical. This isn’t to say that informal readers ought to maintain Jean-Pierre Serre as much as the identical literary requirements of William Shakespeare, however that fiction can contain arithmetic in complicated and delightful methods.

Arithmetic is a wealthy floor for metaphor: the primary scene of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a superb instance of the intertwining of such uncommon matters of dialog. Within the very first scene, our younger protagonist Thomasina is attempting get her tutor, Septimus, to elucidate sexuality to her, whereas Septimus would fairly encourage her research:

Septimus: Carnal embrace is sexual congress, which is the insertion of the male genital organ into the feminine genital organ for functions of procreation and pleasure. Fermat’s Final Theorem, in contrast, asserts that when x,y and z are entire numbers every raised to energy of n, the sum of the primary two can by no means equal the third when n is larger than 2.
Thomasina: Eurghhh!
Septimus: Nonetheless, that’s the theorem.
Thomasina: It’s disgusting and incomprehensible. Now when I’m grown to apply it myself I shall by no means accomplish that with out considering of you. (3)

Thomasina grunts out of mathematical frustration or coital pleasure, or maybe each. And what exactly will she be doing when considering of Septimus? This early comparability of algebraic idea with sexual self-discovery alters the tone of each mathematical reference uttered by means of the remainder of the play, and double-entendres come up from in any other case harmless mathematical statements. Arcadia is laced with math, most prominently geometry and chaos idea. From carnal embrace to structure, math is among the many major metaphors for analyzing the impermanence of types and the wrestle to search out which means in a world of background static.

Whereas intercourse and demise are compelling, authors additionally use math not as a metaphor for different issues however as itself: a philosophical software with which to pry off the lid of the universe. Neal Stephenson has written quite a few historic fiction (or arguably science fiction) novels whose major or secondary characters are mathematicians. The Baroque Cycle is a compendium of three novels centered across the dispute between Newton and Leibniz. In Quicksilver, the primary e book within the cycle, a personality muses on the importance of conic types (ie tracing the intersection of a cone and a airplane) and gravitation:

Comets handed freely by means of area, their trajectories formed solely by (nonetheless mysterious) interactions with the Solar. In the event that they moved on conic sections, it was no accident. A comet following a exact hyperbolic trajectory by means of the æther was a very totally different factor from Daniel’s simply occurring to hint a roughly hyperbolic course by means of the English countryside. If comets and planets moved alongside conic sections, it needed to be some sort of obligatory reality, an intrinsic characteristic of the universe. It did imply one thing. What precisely? (676)

Daniel ponders an outdated query: is nature written based on the principles of Euclidean Geometry, or is geometry simply the phantasm of patterns within the fog? Newton’s “On the Movement of Our bodies in Orbit” seems to reply the query, and in so doing open a window to the thoughts of God. The affect of arithmetic on metaphysics has an amazing impact on non secular, and due to this fact political, considering on the time. On this method arithmetic drives a thousand plot strains spinning off from its philosophical implications.

However the topics needn’t all the time be as weighty because the Common Regulation of Gravitation. Math can seem inside a way of caprice and pleasure in the fantastic thing about fixing puzzles and phrase video games. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is filled with delicate math jokes woven into the material of his incredible story. On the Mad Tea Occasion, when the Hatter desires one other cup of tea, he has the entire celebration transfer across the desk in a sort of infinite sequence. When Alice asks what occurs when all of the locations are used up, the March Hare asks for a change of topic. In Via the Trying Glass, the chess queens grill Alice on her arithmetical ability:

“And also you do Addition?” the White Queen requested. “What’s one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?”
“I don’t know,” stated Alice. “I misplaced rely.”
“She will be able to’t do Addition,” the Crimson Queen interrupted. “Are you able to do Subtraction? Take 9 from eight.”
“9 from eight I can’t, ,” Alice replied very readily: “however – “
“She will be able to’t do Subtraction,” stated the White Queen. (222)

These are the joyous little jokes that make the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Via the Trying Glass so endearing. Along with writing kids’s tales, Lewis Carroll was a mathematician; phrase video games and intelligent exchanges similar to these are the results of a mathematical consideration to the exact meanings of phrases. Many glorious articles have been written on the logical puzzles hidden in his works.

Thus, opposite to the widespread notion that arithmetic and literature occupy reverse ends on the spectrum of human thought, one can see how effectively the 2 disciplines might interweave. That is however a sampling, there’s far more math to be present in fiction than simply the few examples above. Whether or not heavy-handed or light-hearted, express or metaphorical, math seems in all types of the way all through literary works. When you’ve got however the endurance to look into it and see, arithmetic could be a gentle to brighten the various worlds you would possibly go to.


  1. Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Via the Trying Glass. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000.
  2. Stephenson, Neal. Quicksilver. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
  3. Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. New York: Faber and Faber, 1993.