Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Literature and Mathematics

I was thinking more about the portrayal of mathematicians in literature as we have discussed it this semester. I was thinking back to our original attempts to define what constituted literature. At first, we tended to include almost anything, like text books or magazines. But if I recall correctly, we finally decided that literature generally had topics of "substance" and had a lot of "depth" to it, and was perhaps concerned with "asking thoughtful questions". So Dostoevsky writes literature but J.K. Rowling does not (I know, harsh). Given this context, it might not be surprising that the mathematicians in literature would tend to be the crazy ones. For instance, We is certainly a book of substance seeking to discuss some deep questions, and is thus literature. D-503 is basically a tool for discussing these questions. But the questions being asked require D-503 to behave in these extreme ways so that the novel can illustrate its points about happiness etc. In other words, it is not just a book about mathematicians, and thus is not very focused on portraying them in a realistic manner, since that would not serve to address the questions the novel is trying to ask. Since most literature has this type of depth it wants to cover, it's not surprising that if the protagonist is a mathematician, he would not be a typical one but rather a very "deep" and extreme example of one.

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