Math and literature. If you’re like most of us, one of those words is enough to send your high school mind into a fit. But thanks to the stories below, apparently the two can co-exist in harmony.
In honor of March 14, better known by “math people” as “Pi day,” we’ve compiled a list of eight stories featuring math in some form—from a short, geometry-inspired yarn from John Cheever to the Mean Value Theorem’s guest appearance in David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest. List your own favorites in the comment section below.
As you’ll see through the course of this list, love and math make up an ugly, discordant pair. One relies on intuition and passion. The other? Black-and-white calculations. And so it’s no surprise that by illustrating the cut-and-dried processes, an author can bring out math’s antithesis. Love. Feelings. Emotion, people!
The Fault in our Stars author John Green wrote this math-littered tale of Colin, a man who has dated many Katherines (19, to be exact). In his quest for perfection, Colin looks to prove which side of a romantic relationship will break ties first. We see his processes throughout, but when trying to calculate a feeling, the answer is never a number.
“If he could make a geometric analysis of his problems, mightn’t he solve them, or at least create an atmosphere of solution?” Cheever’s math-inspired tale was first published in the Saturday Evening Post, and “The Geometry of Love” told the tale of a freelance engineer named Mallory trying to break down matters of the heart with geometric equations. It’s grim and futile as you’d guess, and the messy ending is undeniably Cheever.
No one said Pynchon was easy to read. Gravity’s Rainbow, a 760-page juggernaut released in 1973, gets an extra kick from three lengthy equations dispersed throughout the book, which follows the production of German V-2 missiles near the end of World War II. And while we could speculate on what Pynchon’s three hearty equations might mean, academics have already broken down the math. We’ll let them do the talking here and here.
Leaf through David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More, a book discussing the concept of infinity, and you’ll realize his mind wasn’t bound to the craft of writing alone. Okay—that could be said for almost all of his work. But with Infinite Jest, not only do we get a pages-long footnote on the Mean Value Theorem (which is used incorrectly), but the actual structure of the book was determined by math itself—a fractal called a Sierpinski Gasket, if we’re being specific.
We don’t dive too deep into mathematical specifics in Jurassic Park. But it is the, uh, um, uh, the—uh, mathematician character (famously played by Jeff Goldblum) who drives the plot, explaining the theory behind Jurassic Park’s chaotic end.
This pulpy, anagram-filled bit of sci-fi breaks down a set-in-stone biblical number—the titular Number of the Beast—and adds a new spin to it. Heinlein’s parodic tale follows Zebadiah John Carter through multiple dimensions, where we learn the demonic Number (as we know it) has been wrong the whole time—666 is actually 6^6^6, which totals up to some 29-digit monstrosity representing the accessible number of parallel universes within the book. Go ahead, punch that into your calculator.
Abandoning your family is as easy as simple math in John Updike’s bummer tale of domestic frustration. You’re treated to pages of a logic puzzle, dealing with the causes and effects that occur when A, B and C interact. Here, we see our main character juggling laundry, his children’s expenses and psychiatric visits—all in a new life with a younger woman. The worst part? This all looks easier on paper.
If Sanderson taught math to high schoolers, then students would be queuing in droves to study the subject. His novel features a world where Rithmatists, people with the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures drawn in chalk, defend the American Isles from destructive Wild Chalklings. It sounds fantastical—and it is—but Sanderson’s world hinges upon a magical system grounded in geometry. Believe us, after reading The Rithmatist, you’ll never regard the circumference of a circle as “boring” again. —Frannie Jackson