FUN: The Mathematician's Literary Companion

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Science  17 Dec 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5704, pp. 2009
DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5704.2009a

Every bookstore has a science-fiction section, but good luck finding the aisle devoted to “math fiction.” Yet satirist Jonathan Swift, mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers, macho filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, and many others have integrated math and mathematicians into their creations. Mathematical Fiction from Professor Alex Kasman of the College of Charleston in South Carolina lists more than 450 novels, short stories, comic books, and other works that feature math themes, characters, or examples.

As brief descriptions show, math can be tangential or fundamental to the pieces, and the portrayals of mathematicians range from sympathetic to scathing. For example, in Gulliver's Travels, Swift derides the hyperintellectual, math-obsessed residents of the flying island of Laputa: “in the common actions and behaviour of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people. … Imagination, fancy, and invention, they are wholly strangers to.” Visitors can comment on the choices or rate their literary quality and mathematical accuracy.

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