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What are some fiction books about mathematicians?

It seems to me rather difficult for writers to create good books on this subject. Some years ago I thought there were no such books at all. There are many reasons: it is difficult to describe the process of discovery and describe it in the exciting way. The subject has narrow audience and not the way to make best-seller...

Comments on how authors try to avoid these problems are also welcome. The movie "A Beautiful Mind" is a (beautiful for me) example, where the story of mathematician was mixed with love and spy stories to make it interesting for general audience, well not so much preserved from mathematician's story, but nevertheless I am quite positive about it.

Here is a related MO question:

Movies about mathematics mathematicians

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closed as no longer relevant by Felipe Voloch, Mark Meckes, j.c., Mark Sapir, quid Feb 20 '13 at 14:08

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I think 'other scientists' should be removed; or at least it should be narrowed down to 'scientists in closely related fields'. To collect books featuring, say, a microbiologist seems totally off-topic for MO to me. –  quid Jul 8 '12 at 11:43
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I'm going to take the liberty of removing "scientists" from the question since there are way too many books about scientists to ask for a list, and it makes more sense to ask about books featuring mathematicians on MO. –  Douglas Zare Jul 8 '12 at 20:59
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It is perhaps worth pointing out that while the movie "A Beautiful Mind" was fictionalized in many ways, the book it is based on is non-fiction. It is an (as far as I could tell) well-researched biography of the very real John Nash. –  Noah Stein Jul 9 '12 at 14:38
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Mathematicians should not do, and certainly not enjoy, anything other than mathematical research, lest they give themselves away as human beings with a variety of interests and not a 100% devotion to just the one. –  Sridhar Ramesh Jul 10 '12 at 16:43
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"Time spent reading is time not not used for doing research." @Harry: are you an intuitionist? –  Margaret Friedland Jul 10 '12 at 17:52

65 Answers 65

Written about mathematicians, by mathematicians, and certainly for mathematicians, the self-published "choose your own adventure," Mathematics Odyssey, certainly deserves mention.

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"The Housekeeper and the Professor" gives an intersting insight into the though processes of a Mathematician, written from the perspective of a non-Mathematician. The author sem to me to have a good understanding of the former.

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There is Dis-mois qui tu aimes (je te dirai qui tu hais), which is a murder mystery set in a thinly veiled 1980's version of the IHES mathematical community. The link is to a current discussion of how to get a copy (it has been reprinted under a different title, but under either title is currently out of print).

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Clifton Fadiman assembled a couple of anthologies of stories featuring mathematics and/or mathematicians as main characters.

Fantasia Mathematica

http://www.amazon.com/Fantasia-Mathematica-Clifton-Fadiman/dp/0387949313/

The Mathematical Magpie

http://www.amazon.com/Mathematical-Magpie-Clifton-Fadiman/dp/038794950X

Some are good, some are not so good.

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The book "De wilde getallen" by Philibert Schogt ("The wild numbers") is a great story about a young mathematician and his struggle with an (imaginary) theorem in number theory. It illustrates the emotional rollercoaster one sometimes goes through while trying to prove theorems.

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Whom the Gods Love. The Story of Evariste Galois, 1950. Wydanie polskie Wybrańcy bogów. Powieść o życiu Ewarysta Galois.

I read the Polish version in grade school. It is more of a novel than a biography.

The author: Leopold Infeld, a physicist and collaborator of Einstein http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_Infeld

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The above mentioned "The Oxford Murders" and "Measuring the World" are two books people must be warned of. The first is the worst detective story that can be possibly written, the second was slated for very good reason in the Notices (http://www.ams.org/notices/200806/tx080600681p.pdf).

Joel Adler

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Anathem, by Neal Stephenson.

The book is set in an alternate timeline, where a tradition has taken root (over thousands of years) for academics to isolate themselves from society for long periods of time. There are those who are in for a year, and aren't allowed to mingle/communicate with those who are in for 5 years, or 10, or 100. There are some actual proofs in the text that are crucial to the plot. The book contains a serious discussion (which I wouldn't have thought possible, much less interesting) of whether mathematics is discovered or invented, and what would the nature of an experiment that could distinguish these possibilities be like.

I liked the book when I read it. It has really "stuck to my ribs", however, and I now love the book.

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See also Complots mathématiques à Princeton, by Claudine Monteil.

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Few days ago I bought and already read this book, which I found quite nice (sorry it is in Russian):

Тельняшка математика ( Mathematician's (sailor's) striped vest)

Author: Игорь Дуэль (Igor Duel )

http://prochtenie.ru/index.php/docs/3895

http://www.ozon.ru/context/detail/id/5020607/

This fiction story is about young gifted mathematician. To make the story interesting for (general) audience the authors uses the following tricks:

1) the results obtained by main hero were attempted to be stolen by his boss, high-ranked administrative official, who is very weak in math, but build his career on the works of others. So this increases the temperature of the exposition and hopefully everyone will sympathy the main hero.

2) Main hero having this problem in his career makes a change in his life and goes to work as a sailor on a ship for many months. (That is why the title is so). So the exposition organized in the following way: chapter about math-life, chapter about sailor's life. During his sailor's life he has many of adventures, and meet many different people.

3) The part of process of making discoveries is also described in way that everyone can try to understand - by the analogy with military compaign: the author's results stands on results of his older colleague (springboard for attack), he try and fail the "front-wide" "Blitzkrieg", and after that he creates his new paths to unknown (enemy's) territory, in several directions: in forests, in bogs -- in order to find the general picture from pieces.

4) Of course, there is line about love story of the main hero.

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The Oxford Murders is a nice novel about a graduate student in Oxford, which specializes in logics (it seems that the author has a PhD in logics). The book is kind of nice, and it was adapted to a film a few years ago.

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John Wallis is one of many 17th century mathematicians and scientists who appear as significant characters in Iain Pears's novel An Instance of the Fingerpost --- a book I highly recommend. (Warning: Do not read the Amazon customer reviews. They're full of major spoilers.)

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Mathematicians in Love is a book by Rudy Rucker. The protagonist is a graduate student in mathematics, as is his rival. The ideas he is trying to put into his thesis turn out to be the keys to altering reality.

Rudy Rucker has written nonfiction about mathematics, so I expect that many of his other fictional works are influenced by mathematics.

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The Broken God by David Zindell is a sci-fi novel about a universe in which the top ruling class is called "The Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame". They have to go through extreme training in advanced math because they use topology to navigate through the universe using something called the Vild. To my knowledge it is the only work of fiction that uses the term "topology" in its mathematical sense in the first few pages.

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After Math by Miriam Webster is a kind of mystery novel set in a department of mathematics. The main characters are mathematicians and there is a considerable amount of mathematics in the book; I believe that the author (whose real name is Amy Babich) has a Ph.D. in mathematics.

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Godel, Escher and Bach: An eternal golden braid?

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This is a non-fiction book, except for the dialogues, which aren't really "about mathematicians". –  Timothy Chow Jul 10 '12 at 17:11

One might argue whether the main character D-503 of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We counts as a mathematician. It is a classical dystopian novel, similar in spirit to Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four (but older and arguably better). D-503 is rather an engineer than a mathematician in our sense, but in the novel's setting, due to the almost complete mechanization of human life, this is as close as one can get to being a mathematician. In any case, mathematical concepts play a decent rôle, in particular - as strange as this may sound - the purported challenge to imagination posed by imaginary numbers.

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Alex`s Adventures in numberland ny Alex Bellos. Here is a link to his website and an interview: http://alexbellos.com/ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ci3P5jf48cY

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You could try "Solar" by Ian McEwan. It's about a senior researcher that hasn't done good work in years but gets a break one day.

Somewhat less seriously, there's also the delightfully named "Advanced calculus of murder" by Eric Rosenthal.

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Actually, Advanced Calculus of Murder is the sequel. The first book was Calculus of Murder, as one could probably guess. Presumably the next one will be Linear Algebra of Murder. –  Joe Silverman Jul 9 '12 at 3:22

Rymdväktaren and Nyaga are (admittedly Swedish language) sci-fi books that feature 5-6 mathematicians in the main cast as well as one supercomputer.

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La conjecture de Syracuse, by Antoine Billot (in French).

This novel is about a fictional mathematician having solved the Collatz conjecture in his youth and whose career will be put at risk by a young student competing with him.

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The protagonist of Euclid's Alone by William Orr, and that of Four Brands of Impossible by Norman Kagan. (both short stories can be found in the collection "Mathenauts" http://kasmana.people.cofc.edu/MATHFICT/mfview.php?callnumber=mf52 )

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Not a book, but a play: "Descartes and Pascal", about a historical encounter of these two mathematicians. It was in part translated into Polish and I remember reading it in this version. I could not recall the name of the author. Googling gives Jean De Clouse, by a reference to a stage version in Marathi:

Written by Jean De Clouse and translated into Marathi by Madhuri Purandare, the play's subject derives from a historical meeting between philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal, a mathematician, physicist and philosopher himself. This meeting took place on 23rd September 1646.

If someone could confirm or correct the authorship or/and the title, he/she is welcome. There are other references to the meeting on the web, but not to the play:

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/when-blaise-pascal-met-rene-descartes-1337242.html

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Nobody has yet mentioned "The French Mathematician" by Tom Petsinis (http://amzn.to/NprQMg) a novelized telling of the life of Galois. As well as being a good read, it's meticulously researched (the author, as well as being an award winning novelist, playwright and poet, is an accomplished mathematics educator.) I recommend it to you all.

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"Bimbos of the Death Sun" and "Zombies of the Gene Pool" by Sharyn McCrumb feature an engineering professor who writes science fiction and solves murders. Two of the funniest books I've read.

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According to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno, Giordano Bruno was a mathematician, among other things, and S J Parris has written three excellent novels (and counting ..) that feature Bruno as the main character as a detective and secret agent combined:

http://www.amazon.com/Heresy-S-J-Parris/dp/0385531281

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Prophecy-Giordano-Bruno-S-Parris/dp/0007317735

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sacrilege-Giordano-Bruno-S-Parris/dp/000731776X

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This might qualify as experimental mathematics fiction.

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke.

monks created an alphabet in which they calculated they could encode all the possible names of god, numbering about 9,000,000,000 ("nine billion") and each having no more than nine characters. Writing the names out by hand, as they had been doing, even after eliminating various nonsense combinations, would take another 15,000 years; the monks wish to use modern technology in order to finish this task more quickly.

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I recently read a short story called "Space" by John Buchan (author of The Thirty-Nine Steps) which is about a mathematician who discovers a gateway to the fourth dimension or something. It's quite good.

Also, Charles Kingsley wrote a novel about Hypatia of Alexandria back in the mid-nineteenth century. I haven't read it yet, but I found two copies in a secondhand bookshop the other day. I would be surprised if it didn't have some mathematics in it.

Edit: I just finished reading "Hypatia". Surprisingly, it didn't have any mathematics in it. It did contain this nice quote, however:

In the hour of that unrighteous victory, the Church of Alexandria received a deadly wound. It had admitted and sanctioned those habits of doing evil that good may come, of pious intrigue, and at last of open persecution, which are certain to creep in wheresoever men attempt to set up a merely religious empire, independent of human relationships and civil laws; to 'establish,' in short, a 'theocracy,' and by that very act confess their secret disbelief that God is ruling already.

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Limiting myself to books not yet mentioned:

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman is notable for luminous prose. It does pertain nominally to physics, not pure math, but only (at the time) of the most theoretical kind, far closer to math than most physics of the day.

As to the Foundation series, which has been mentioned here before since Hari Seldon is a mathematician, it is worth noting that in the later novels of the first trilogy key roles are played by a community of mathematicians whose mathematical research is critical to the advancement of the plot.

The French Mathematician by Tom Petsinis is a fictionalized account of Galois; I enjoyed it.

Also, Engima by Robert Harris is loosely based on Turing's work in the war. It is not entirely without points of interest. Harris is a pretty good writer, although the story is perhaps not his best.

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