Stories for Mathematicians: The Mathematical Fiction Homepage

If you enjoy math, it’s a pretty fair bet that you’ve seen A Beautiful Mind, the Academy Award-winning film about the life of mathematician John Forbes Nash.  Perhaps you’ve even read Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash, on which the movie was loosely based.  But suppose you wanted to watch another movie inspired by math, or that you wanted to read a novel with mathematical themes.  How would you find one?  The Mathematical Fiction Homepage, maintained by Dr. Alex Kasman of the College of Charleston, would be an excellent place to start!  The website is a searchable database filled with reviews of all kinds of media—films, books, short stories, comics—evaluating them both on their literary merit and their mathematical content.  You can search by genre, find lists of Dr. Kasman’s favorite works for a variety of audiences (including children, math students, sci-fi fans, and literati), and even filter for a range of mathematical motifs such as “female mathematicians” or “Möbius strips/nonorientability.”

Mathematical fiction might seem like a bit of a niche genre—and it is, in many respects—but there are a lot of high-quality works to be found in the database.  Proof, both the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn and its film adaptation, is one of my personal favorites.  Like A Beautiful Mind, it deals with mental health issues, intertwining those with themes of family, inheritance, and the nature of proof.  It’s a small, intimate drama and it handles its difficult material with sensitivity.  Some may find the mathematical content to be a bit too superficial, but while the references are somewhat simplistic, I thought their thematic resonance was quite powerful.  If books are more your scene, The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, is a lovely short novel about a woman and her son who, in a strange and poignant way, become a sort of family for an amnesiac former mathematician.  The prose, translated beautifully from the original Japanese, is spare and effective, and if you like literary fiction or stories that are quietly quirky, it would be a great choice.  Finally, from the short story section, I recommend “Division by Zero,” by Ted Chiang.  Chiang writes top-notch sci-fi, but this story skews a little closer to home—it’s the story of both a mathematician devastated by her discovery of the fundamental inconsistency of mathematics and her husband’s attempts to repair their relationship in the wake of her suicide attempt.  Woven in with these parallel plots are thematically relevant and lucid references to important developments in the history of mathematics.  The story is emotionally compelling and the math works really well.

There are a lot of other really cool works listed in the database, too—I hope you’ll check it out!

About Maya Sharma

Maya Sharma is studying for her MS in mathematics at Loyola University Chicago.
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