The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature

Sarah Hart in The New York Times:

“Call me Ishmael.” This has to be one of the most famous opening sentences in all of literature, and I’m embarrassed to say that — until quite recently — I didn’t get beyond it. “Moby-Dick” was, for me, one of those books that languished in the guilt-inducing category of “things you should have read a long time ago,” and I just never got around to it. Plus, I am a mathematician. And despite my interest in literature, my intellectual priorities did not include 400-page novels about whales — or so I thought. That all changed one day when I overheard a mathematician friend mention that “Moby-Dick” contains a reference to cycloids.

Cycloids are among the most beautiful mathematical curves in existence — the French mathematician Blaise Pascal found them so distractingly fascinating that he claimed merely thinking about them could relieve the pain of a bad toothache — but applications to whaling are not usually listed on their résumé. Intrigued, 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.

There have been occasional academic studies on mathematical aspects of specific genres and authors. But the more holistic connections between mathematics and literature have not received the attention they deserve.

More here.