Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Math Stories

Thinking about game theory on Monday got my mind whirling about math for the first time in a while. I've probably mentioned before that I was a math major in college. For a long, long time math was my greatest interest. I loved the logic of it and the fact that every problem always had a correct answer. I loved its elegance and I loved that mathematical truth could usually be known with certainty.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that math wasn't my final destination. Much as I still love it, I never regretted making the change to writing. But I've always found a lot of beauty in math, and since I know so many people don't see it I want to talk about math from a story perspective.


Ever hear of Evariste Galois? I won't be surprised if you haven't. He was a brilliant mathematician of the early 19th century, but he died at a very early age after being wounded in a duel. The reasons for the duel aren't entirely clear, but evidence suggests it had something to do with a girl.

How about Carl Friedrich Gauss? There's a famous anecdote about Gauss as a young boy. His teacher asked him to find the sum of all whole numbers from 1 to 100, thinking the task would take a long time to complete. Within seconds Gauss had the answer.

Surely you've heard of Isaac Newton. But do you know about Gottfried Leibniz? Did you know there was a huge plagiarism scandal over which of the two men invented calculus? Today they are both credited with coming up with it simultaneously, but in the early 18th century the question sparked a bitter controversy. (By the way, Leibniz's notation is the one we use today.)

The history of mathematics is full of quirky people and dramatic events, many of which are fascinating to study. And I bet I wouldn't have to search very hard to find a mathematical story worth telling. Why? Because despite the pure logic of mathematics, it was developed by very human people, and human stories are universal. So if you're ever looking for a new character idea, consider browsing through a list of famous mathematicians for inspiration.


As a child one of my favorite mysteries was Fermat's Last Theorem. If you already know about it, forgive me for explaining to those who don't.

Everybody who has taken Geometry should be familiar with the Pythagorean Theorem: a² + b² = c², where a, b and c are the lengths of the sides of a right triangle (c being the hypotenuse).

So here's the question: what if you change the equation to a + b = c, where n is a whole number greater than 2? That is, if a, b and c aren't squared but are instead, say, cubed, or taken to the fourth power, can you ever find a solution to the equation?

Pierre de Fermat (a mathematician living in the first half of the 17th century) said no. At his death, his son found the following written in a book and referring to the fact that the equation had no solution: “I have a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.”

But what was his proof? Nobody knows! It was never found. And for a few hundred years, nobody was able to prove that the theorem was true. Only within the past fifteen years did one man (Andrew Wiles) and a 100-page proof finally lay the question to rest.

But surely Fermat's proof wasn't 100 pages long! So did he really have a proof? And if he did, what was it? It's still a mystery!

And it's not the only mathematical mystery. So if you've got writer's block and you're looking for something new to stimulate your mind, try delving into a math mystery for a while.


You'd think I'd be used to it by now, but I'm still always amazed when I find that things in the real world come back to mathematics. There's something almost magical about how math just fits everywhere.

In fact, I wrote a story once about math and magic and music and the embodiments of Hope and Peace and other such ideas. I called it Fugue. It was a NaNoWriMo story and had almost no research, and a lot of the math was just hand waving because I didn't go through all of it rigorously, but it was a lot of fun and I liked the idea.

I already know what I'll be writing for the next couple years at least, but maybe some day in the future I'll work on another book with math in it. In the meantime, if you're looking for some interesting people to help you get rid of any lingering anger toward math, I'd point you in the direction of Martin Gardner and Vi Hart. They make math pretty irresistible.


  1. I have a math post or two coming up. One is a variant of the Ulam Spiral--inspired by the incomparable Vi Hart. (Did I mention my favorite editor is a program named vi?)

  2. Nice! You're a lot more of an "applied math" guy, right? I always preferred theory. My favorite classes were abstract algebra, number theory and combinatorics.

  3. Oh my... math. I definitely don't hate it, I'm just awful with numbers. It's something my hubby and I laugh about often. He's the math guru in this couple. ;)

  4. Math gets better the fewer numbers it involves :)