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Math, Mind, and Matter

The surprising similarities between mathematics and literature

Last October, legendary American author Cormac McCarthy, who wrote Blood Meridian and The Road, released a pair of interconnected novels called The Passenger and Stella Maris. The books arrived after a sixteen-year silence from the desk of McCarthy. The books deal, per usual, with themes of mortality, fate, and the “God question,” and are predictably lyrical, vivid, and dark. But McCarthy plows new ground in these sibling novels. The books are about mathematicians. It’s fiction about math. 

The story revolves around the complex relationship between a brother and sister: Bobby and Alicia Western. Bobby is a deep-sea diver with some history in the field of mathematics, while Alicia is a once-in-a-generation math prodigy. 

Not Estranged, but Akin

After reading these books myself, I marveled at McCarthy’s ability to infuse literature with mathematics. On the surface, fiction and math seem to belong to two obverse fields, forbidden to speak to each other. Somehow, though, he makes it work. He makes the prose sing. But how, and why? Just recently I read an article on the connection between literature and mathematics and have come to realize that McCarthy is not alone in inviting numbers into the literary endeavor. Far from being estranged, fiction and math are deeply akin in more ways than one. 

In a guest essay for the New York Times, British mathematician Sarah Hart describes her joy in discovering a wealth of authors who write about mathematical concepts. She says:  

I finally read “Moby-Dick,” and was delighted to find that it abounds with mathematical metaphors. I realized further it’s not just Herman Melville; Leo Tolstoy writes about calculus, James Joyce about geometry. Fractal structure underlies Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” and algebraic principles govern various forms of poetry. We mathematicians even appear in work by authors as disparate as Arthur Conan Doyle and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

She goes on to lament the artificial boundaries society has built between math and the arts. Despite opting for a career in mathematics, Hart grew up unapologetically loving the written word, too, particularly the imaginative works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. She notes that historically, the “trivium” and “quadrivium” included both fields of study and together comprise what we commonly regard as the liberal arts. Even more interestingly, however, are her convictions about what both math and literature speak to. She continues:

There is a deeper reason we find mathematics at the heart of literature. The universe is full of underlying structure, pattern and regularity, and mathematics is the best tool we have for understanding it — that’s why mathematics is often called the language of the universe, and why it is so vital to science.

When a professional mathematician’s writing seems to evoke the complex design (my word, not hers) in our universe, that is quite illuminating. She goes on to relate her thoughts to literature:

Good mathematics, like good writing, involves an inherent appreciation of structure, rhythm and pattern. That feeling we get when we read a great novel or a perfect sonnet — that here is a beautiful thing, with all the component parts fitting together perfectly in a harmonious whole — is the same feeling a mathematician experiences when reading a beautiful proof.

Celebrating Brokenness

It probably isn’t coincidental that appreciation for harmony, style, and beauty has significantly diminished in the age of materialism. If Hart’s view of a universe brimming with structure and order is an illusion, as materialistic thinking insists, then it makes sense that literature, film, and visual arts will reflect a sense of futility, despair, and meaninglessness. A friend of mine who is a visual artist describes the current ethos of the art world as a “celebration of brokenness.” Under the spell of materialism, artists and writers can forget their important calling to elucidate and contemplate the beauty, meaning, and design in the world around them. 

Perhaps today’s novelist should pick up a copy of Euclid alongside Hemingway and rediscover what is beautiful and orderly in the everyday world. As Hart notes:

Great literature and great mathematics satisfy the same deep yearning in us: for beauty, for truth, for understanding. As the pioneering Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya wrote: “It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in [one’s] soul … the poet must see what others do not see, must see more deeply …. And the mathematician must do the same.”

Hart is an author of a book that goes deeper into this matter, Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature.

Cross-posted at Evolution News.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Math, Mind, and Matter