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Ask Slashdot: Mathematical Fiction? 278

Posted by Soulskill
from the it-was-an-arbitrarily-lit-and-stormy-night dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Neal Stephenson's 1999 Cryptonomicon was a great yarn. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable (and too short) romp through some mathematics. Where can I find more of that? I should say that I don't want SF — at least none of the classic SF I read voraciously in the 70s; it's just not the same thing, and far too often just a puppet-theatre for an author's philosophical rant. Has any author managed to hit the same vein as Stephenson did? (Good non-fiction math-reads are also gratefully accepted. What have you got?)"
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Ask Slashdot: Mathematical Fiction?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:11PM (#41757267)

    After all, 2+2=5

  • Tons of math fiction (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:14PM (#41757321)

    http://kasmana.people.cofc.edu/MATHFICT/

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:15PM (#41757329)

    It's great mathematical fiction.

  • Greg Egan (Score:5, Informative)

    by Edward Coffin (256305) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:16PM (#41757339)
    Try something by Greg Egan [wikipedia.org]. His short story Glory [typepad.com] (pdf) is online.
    • by vux984 (928602)

      Yeah, I was thinking Greg Egan as well; Schild's Ladder in particular, along with Permutation City pop to mind.

      And much of the work under the moniker of "Hard SF" might appeal to the submitter, since it tends to be backed by real math, physics, and chemistry and often delves into the details.

    • Re:Greg Egan (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @05:10PM (#41758209)

      Egan's latest, "Clockwork Rocket", is probably his most mathy work to date. It takes place in a different universe (dubbed "Orthogonal") with its own distinct physics: the speed of light is different for different colors; gravity is an inverse-linear force as opposed to inverse-square; and don't even ask what's going on at the subatomic level (are there even atoms in this universe? It's not quite clear this early in the trilogy...)

      Anyway, the book's got diagrams and everything, so if math and physics are your thing, you'll have lots of fun with this one.

    • by gknoy (899301)

      Thanks for the reminder of his work: I read that story years ago, and loved it. I'll have to go seek out the rest of his work now.

    • Re:Greg Egan (Score:4, Informative)

      by Beetle B. (516615) <beetle_b@@@email...com> on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @09:14PM (#41760363)

      I second Greg Egan. For a taste, here's a free short story. [asimovs.com]

    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      Google gives this:
      'At the moment, there are 1089 works of mathematical fiction listed in this database.'
      http://kasmana.people.cofc.edu/MATHFICT/all.php [cofc.edu]

  • flatland (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:19PM (#41757389)

    flatland, a romance of many dimensions;
    (http://www.geom.uiuc.edu/~banchoff/Flatland/)

    • by mikael (484)

      Delightful night-time reading - nothing violent or scary. About the greatest hazard are the triangular buildings with sharp corners.

    • Re:flatland (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @06:41PM (#41759239)

      The sequel "Flatterland" (by Ian Stewart, who also wrote "The Annotated Flatland", which is exactly what it says on the tin, and contributed to the excellent "Science of Discworld" trilogy) and parallel novel "The Planiverse" (by A. K. Dewdney) are also quite good.

      Flatterland covers a lot of advanced math and physics, via the adventures of A. Square's great-granddaughter Victoria Line, while The Planiverse examines what physics, chemistry, biology, and societies would be like in a two-dimensional universe.

      • Another note for The Planiverse, which I read long before Flatland and much preferred -- the older novel was a disappointment by comparison when I finally managed to track it down.

    • Re:flatland (Score:4, Informative)

      by ClickOnThis (137803) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @07:33PM (#41759663) Journal

      flatland, a romance of many dimensions;
      (http://www.geom.uiuc.edu/~banchoff/Flatland/)

      Yes, recommended. I enjoyed it, although one has to look past the misogyny in its pages. (It was written in 1884.)

      I also recommend the 1965 novel Sphereland [wikipedia.org] for those who would enjoy a sequel with a more non-Euclidian treatment.

    • by sootman (158191)

      That title always reminds me of the short-but-great "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics" by Norton Juster. (Kids books are worth a mention 'cause hey, why not! They're fun!) Also, "The Phantom Tollbooth", again by the wonderful and talented Mr. Juster. If you like math, you may also like puns and sly humor about math and other subjects. I read "Tollbooth" as a kid (maybe 6th grade or so) and liked it just fine, then I stumbled upon it again in college and re-read it and was *amazed* at all

  • Hofstadter (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:20PM (#41757407)

    I found Douglas Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher, Bach" to be at least as engaging as any Stephenson-esque fiction I've ever read.

    • Re:Hofstadter (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:27PM (#41757501)

      Hostadter also wrote "Metamagical Themas" - both the book and the articles in Scientific American for some time. Those two books were some of the best reads I've ever enjoyed.

    • I was thinking the same. Keep in mind, it's not fiction (there are fictional elements in it, more like fables to illustrate the points made), and it's more like a general essay/introduction to logic, paradox, intelligence and what it means, recursion, and similar topics. You may find yourself covering topics you are already familiar with, depending on your experience, but it's still a good read.

      You can read a better summation on Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Well over a hundred years old and well ahead of it's time.

  • by Anne_Nonymous (313852) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:23PM (#41757449) Homepage Journal

    The Story of O by Pauline Reage is the fascinating account of the discovery of the number in ancient Mesopotamia.

  • Not fiction but... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Empiric (675968) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:23PM (#41757451)

    ...Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer winner -reads- like good fiction.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Soul_of_a_New_Machine [wikipedia.org]

    In terms of "dramatizing math", I'd have to give it the nod even over Cryptonomicon.

  • by Animats (122034) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:23PM (#41757453) Homepage

    "A Subway Named Mobius" [youngmathwizards.com], from 1950.

  • by new death barbie (240326) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:25PM (#41757481)

    Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofsteder
    The Mind's I, co-edited by Douglas Hofsteder and Daniel Dennett
    One, Two, Three... Infinity by George Gamow
    Flatland, by Edwin Abbott Abbott (okay, this one is fiction)
    anything by Martin Gardner

    • by arun_s (877518)
      Great list. Some other good mathematical non-ficiton books I've liked are:
      Anything by Marcus du Sautoy (Music of the Primes, Finding Moonshine)
      Dr.Riemann's Zeros by Karl Sabbagh
      Unknown Quantity by John Derbyshire
      Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos
  • Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture: A Novel of Mathematical Obsession http://www.amazon.com/Uncle-Petros-Goldbachs-Conjecture-Mathematical/dp/1582341281 [amazon.com]

  • I know you asked for math-reads, but you also asked for books like Stephenson. I just finished reading Ready Player One [amazon.com] which I found to be a lot like Gibson and Stephenson, but better. (For example, RPO actually has an ending.) It has a good cyberpunk feel, and a realistic world. The way he described the dystopian near-future society reminded me of Stephenson's Diamond Age or Snow Crash, or Gibson's Virtual Light trilogy.

    • I just finished reading Ready Player One [amazon.com] which I found to be a lot like Gibson and Stephenson, but better. (For example, RPO actually has an ending.)

      Regarding Stephenson's inability to write an ending, amen! He's one of my favorite writers, but he can't tie up a book to save his life. Diamond Age was the worst -- great book, but virtually nothing is resolved at the end. I'd never heard of Ready Player One, but it sounds great and I've already got it on order. Thanks!

    • I think Stephenson takes an eternal and unjust beating about his endings. His books end when the major conflicts are in a position to be resolved by a thinking reader. There's no "and they lived happily ever after," but there is always a sense that all of the key pieces are in the right place and the outcome is decided in that the people we want to come out on top will come out on top. Chess is a very apt metaphor, in my mind: when he stops writing, you know that the Bad Guys are outmaneuvered and trappe

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:28PM (#41757531) Homepage

    I thought you wanted fictional mathematics and was going to point you to arXiv.

  • Captured my attention when I was in high school and I re-read it every few years. It was the first SF that I had ever read that made mathematics a central part of its story.
    • by mprinkey (1434)

      This. The whole series is very well done and deeply engaging. But it is dense. It might be best described as fictional mathematical physics, but it is not your typical SF...even hard SF.

  • Originally published in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction” in 1997

    http://www.spadeofreason.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Spade-of-Reason.pdf [spadeofreason.com]

  • by rknop (240417)

    Also read "Anathem" by Stephenson. Mathematics plays a prominent role, although it's not as explicitly explored as it is in "Cryptonomicon". There are also passing references to things from general relativity (or, at least, a common formalism for tensor analysis) that you will not realize are there unless you've done some advanced undergraduate (or even graduate) Physics courses....

    • by fermion (181285)
      I liked Anathem a lot. The housekeeper and the professor is also really good. Then we have the last theorem by Clarke and pohl which is strange but engaging. Some say the dispossessed counts, but I don't know. The difference Engine by Gibson and sterling is a must read. If you get a chance to see Proof it is well worth it.
      • I liked Anathem a lot. The housekeeper and the professor is also really good. Then we have the last theorem by Clarke and pohl which is strange but engaging. Some say the dispossessed counts, but I don't know. The difference Engine by Gibson and sterling is a must read. If you get a chance to see Proof it is well worth it.

        Came here to also recommend The Housekeeper and the Professor [wikipedia.org]. It reminded me why I used to like maths.

  • by Shaterri (253660) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:34PM (#41757645)

    While not often directly mathematical, several of Jorge Luis Borges's short stories are interesting efforts on his part to grapple philosophically with many of the concepts of infinity: The Library of Babel most famously, but also great stories like The Book of Sand, The Aleph, and even Death and the Compass. They won't necessarily tickle you in the same way that Stephenson's work did, but they're still a fine jumping-off point into fascinating and deeply philosophical mathematics.

  • don't bother with anything by rudy rucker. except the hacker and the ants, or maybe white light if you're desperate.

    anyway, someone mentioned greg egan; i'll second that in general. i don't know exactly what you mean by "mathematical" that would exclude 70s hard sf; greg egan might be too close to that or not. i don't know.

    and although it barely qualifies, stanislaw lem's the investigation [wikipedia.org] was very interesting to me; the description at wikipedia is accurate and as spoiler-free as it could be. actually, an

    • don't bother with anything by rudy rucker. except the hacker and the ants, or maybe white light if you're desperate.

      Oh, I don't know... I loved Rucker's "Software" trilogy, but it's not about math at all.

      If you like pondering infinities, White Light is a lot of fun (but be sure to read The Divine Comedy first).

      I haven't read Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean, but a friend of mine highly recommended it to me.

  • If good non-fiction is ok, find some Feynman. You will be forever in awe.

    Another great non-fiction is Inviting Disaster by James Chiles. It's an engineering book, not a math book, but I think it's still cool in the same vein. Every chapter recreates the events of a famous or influential disaster (nitroglycerin plants explode, buildings collapse, reactors melt down, etc.) and examines the engineering and human decisions that caused or exacerbated the problem. It's been a while since I read it, but IIRC i

    • I second Feynman. His physics lectures are by far his most famous, but his Lectures on Computation is a fascinating look at the mathematical basis for machine computation, and are very underrated, IMO.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:36PM (#41757687)

    I can't believe nobody here has posted this yet...

    One of the most underrated books ever written is Alice in Wonderland. No, it's not "just" an absurdist children's tale. The author, "Lewis Carroll," was really the mathematician and logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- and some mathematicians claim that almost everything that happens in the book is an allegory of a mathematical theorem or algorithm of some kind. I'm not qualified to say, but it is a marvelous work, and some people have written mathematical footnotes for it.

    • by Antipater (2053064) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @05:27PM (#41758407)
      It's an interesting read despite its now-defeated viewpoint, kind of like watching The Battleship Potemkin or Triumph of the Will. It was an allegory ranting against the discipline of complex math, which had just recently been introduced. He was ridiculing the concept of imaginary numbers, which take you to a Wonderland where things grow and shrink in size randomly and other things disappear almost entirely (except their grin!).
  • Easy (Score:4, Funny)

    by DHalcyon (804389) <lorenzd AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:40PM (#41757745)
    For mathematical fiction, I've found nothing beats macroeconomics textbooks.
  • Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll was kind of a fun read ... compares to Cryptonomicon the way The Hobbit compares to LOTR.
  • The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling - Historical Fiction about Babbage.

    The Ghost from the Grand Banks by Arthur C Clark - extensive subplot around chaos and fractal theory.

    You can also make an argument about the Foundation series from Asimov being math based. The entire series is predicated on using math to predict the future and Humanities actions.
  • http://www.math.harvard.edu/~knill/novels/ [harvard.edu] My favorite from these nine math novels is Arturo Sangalli: Pythagorean Revenge.
  • The science fiction novel called Diaspora by Greg Egan had some interesting mathy sections. It wasn't rigorous, as I recall, but it certainly went into more "depth" than your average sci-fi story.

  • by NEDHead (1651195) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @04:54PM (#41757965)

    I read a story the premise of which involved a computer that was designed to create/discover new mathematical theorems. At some point there was found to be an issue in some areas of research, and it was ultimately concluded that another similar effort was being made elsewhere in the universe, and the two efforts were at odds. Essentially the math became 'true' instantly/everywhere when it was first proven, but with different starting points/assumptions the two mathematical realms were in conflict. Don't remember the name/author, and I would love to know (assuming anyone recognizes it from my poor description) to reread and recommend.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mdenham (747985)

      That would be "Luminous", by... hey, Greg Egan again. Good story, if kind of short.

      If you want to stick in that general direction of things, BTW, the short story collection Dark Integers and Other Stories has that plus four other more or less loosely-related (I believe only one actually qualifies as a sequel to Luminous) stories. Probably your best bet for sticking to math-related fiction.

  • Fantasia Mathmatica [amazon.com] It was out of print forever but should be on the shelf of everyone who loves math or teaches math.

    • by Opyros (1153335)
      Fadiman had a second collection called The Mathematical Magpie [addall.com], though it hasn't been reprinted since 1997. It's probably worth noting that Fantasia Mathematica includes the story "A Subway Named Mobius" which someone above recommended.
  • I think (Score:5, Interesting)

    by M0j0_j0j0 (1250800) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @05:06PM (#41758131)

    You may like 50 shades of Grey, it has the number 50 on it.

  • "A Small Library of the Literature of Mathematics from A'h-mose' the Scribe to Albert Einstein, Presented with Commentaries and Notes by James R. Newman."

    Four volumes. Reprinted in paperback by Dover. But the hardcover originals are worth tracking down. Put them on a shelf with "Mathematics and the Imagination." There is nothing to be found which will give you more pleasure.

  • Read the Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy for hilarious, ingenious, quantum physics-based fiction.
  • by EPAstor (933084) on Wednesday October 24, 2012 @05:25PM (#41758361)

    Here's an excellent source of mathematical fiction... Alex Kasman's curated list of mathematical fiction [cofc.edu]! I highly recommend it.

    Also, a story I discovered through this list, which was truly spectacular: Ted Chiang's "Division by Zero". Freely available here [fantasticmetropolis.com].

  • Cuckoo's Egg is good computer fiction you might enjoy.

    For non-preachy hard sci-fi Charles Stress has some post singularity books that are pretty great.

  • He has a modern version of Flatland, and his other novels vary from sci-fi w/ math, to too much math not enough sci-fi :-P

  • I enjoyed "The Sand Reckoner", Gillian Bradshaw's fictional account of Archimedes. (I also enjoyed the original "Sand Reckoner" by Archimedes, but that was not fiction.)

    Gillian Bradshaw is a well regarded historical novelist, and there is mathematical content in the novel if you know what to look for. In the book Archimedes' father dies, and Archimedes distracts by working on his mathematics. The reader does not know what he is working on until he tells his sister "It's more than ten seventy-firsts and less

  • The story "Division by Zero" [fantasticmetropolis.com] by Ted Chiang. Can be found in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others [google.ca] (they're all great stories, actually).

    The story "Luminous" by Greg Egan, from the collection of the same title. What happens when mathematicians discover that: (a) there is a flaw in the structure of mathematical truth; and (b) that mathematical truth can be altered by performing calculations around the flaw.

    Someone has already collected a bunch of mathematical fiction here [cofc.edu].

  • http://kasmana.people.cofc.edu/MATHFICT/mfview.php?callnumber=mf52 [cofc.edu]

    I found the above list because I was searching for information on a story I read and enjoyed, "The Mathenauts". The basic idea is that it is possible to travel into a universe or dimension of pure math, and discover new mathematics by exploration. Some of the explorers don't come back; the chief danger is to lose yourself in the math and never return to our reality. You become imaginary, or something like that.

  • Stephenson has another book, Anathem, that is quite good.
  • Well, if you're looking for a romp through mathematics, how can we leave out the sad tale of Pretty Little Polynomial and Curly Pi [hw.ac.uk]?
  • The story was good but I read it and thought, this is a book written for me. Not nerdface like The Big Bang Theory but stuff complicated enough that it would make most of my family angry to read.

    Michael Crichton did this to a limited extent but not to this lovely level.

    The description of how he deceives the screen scanning system while imprisoned would throw most people for a loop. I love it!

    Encore, encore.
  • Charles Seife's Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea chronicles the origin of the number zero. It's one of the most interesting math and history books I've ever read.
  • Short story collection.

  • ...I'm particularly thinking of White Light here, in which our hero travels, literally, to infinity and beyond. And it is just as screwed up and hallucinogenic as you might imagine.

  • It's been a while since I read it, but I remember Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture [wikipedia.org] being an enjoyable read.

  • Eric Nylund's Signal to Noise http://www.amazon.com/Signal-Noise-Eric-S-Nylund/dp/0380792923 [amazon.com] explores a lot of the same kinds of mathematical concepts as Cryptonomicon, but in a Space Opera Thriller. The sequel is quite good as well.

    Unfortunately, it's impossible to say *anything* about this story without spoiling it, so I'll just leave it as a bare recommendation.

  • Rudy Rucker had a great little booklet out called "Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension" that I would recommend, as well as his "Infinity and the Mind".

    His fiction is all over the place...but if you want specifically math oriented, then try "The Sex Sphere". It is, literally, Flatland taken to the nth dimension! Lots of weird kinky pan-dimensional sex too. :-) Captain Jack would love this book! :-)

  • Mathematicians in Love

    Also:
    Postsingular, Hylozoic
    White Light

  • Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture [amazon.com] tells a fictional story about real mathematics and real mathematicians.

    Logicomix [amazon.com] is an excellent graphic novel about mathematical logic.

    A Certain Ambiguity [amazon.com] uses real mathematics in a fictional quest for absolute truth.

  • Not quite what you're asking for, but there a whole range of comics to help vulgarise maths that are a great read. Look for the work of Ian Stewart. He was quite successful in France with French translations, but I'm not sure whether he galvanised much interest in the English speaking world. His famous series in French goes by the title of "les chroniques de Rose Polymath".
    http://www.amazon.com/Ian-Stewart/e/B000APQ9NM/ [amazon.com].

    On a slightly different note, French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Petit vulgarised a n
    • by retchdog (1319261)

      since you seem to be French, i have to ask: did you intend the very negative connotations of the word "vulgarise"? don't take this the wrong way, it's just kind of funny and i'm genuinely confused because you seem to be mostly positive about the works you mention.

  • Some discrete math [amazon.com] for you to think about disguised as a story.
  • Another novel in which analytical engines play a part.
  • by tobiah (308208) on Thursday October 25, 2012 @01:20AM (#41761553)

    If we drop the fiction requirement but still avoid math proper, there are classics like...
    "A Mathematicians Apology" by G.H. Hardy is The description of what it is to be a modern mathematician. Essential reading for the professional.
    "Chaos: Making a New Science" by James Gleick popularized the field of chaos, now folded into analysis.
    "The Fractal Geometry of Nature" by B. Mandelbrot is worth it for the images, and popularized fractal geometry.
    "Godel, Escher, Bach" by D. Hofstadter has been mentioned above, but is an extraordinary exploration of logic and well-deserves its awards.
    I consider "Where Mathematics Comes From" by G. Lakoff and R. Nunez to rank amoung these. It applies linguistic cognitive neuroscience methods to explore the neurological basis of mathematics.

    For math proper, a couple favorites:
    "The Heritage of Thales" by Anglin and Lambek is part history and part math textbook, presenting classic results from different periods of history in their context.
    "A Wavelet Tour of signal processing" by Stephane Mallat is the best book on wavelets I've seen, clearly written and full of powerful ideas which may take centuries to unfold.

  • by Urban Garlic (447282) on Thursday October 25, 2012 @08:40AM (#41763813)

    This is a near-miss in the math nonfiction category, "One Jump Ahead" by Jonathan Schaeffer is the story of the guy who solved the game of checkers. I haven't read the book, but there's a podcast on the "relatively prime" series, called "Chinook", here [relprime.com].

    Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with either the Relatively Prime podcast series, or the Chinook project.

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