Mixing maths and fiction for a higher purpose
Arturo Sangalli reflects on his attempt to educate (mathematically) through fiction.
During my teaching years, I came to know many students who were turned off by mathematics, and probably carried with them a lifelong loathing of the subject. Education experts and psychologists offer a variety of explanations for such apathetic attitude, going as far as to conjecture the existence of a "fear of fractions" gene. Among the proposed remedies, a popular one is to make maths "fun", but I always believed a better approach was to make it interesting and exciting. Since these adjectives aptly describe a good story, I wondered whether fiction could be used as a vehicle to educate as well as entertain.
That idea eventually materialized into a novel. It was a modest attempt to bridge the great divide between art and science-or, less grandiosely put, between entertaining and instructing. Two of the principal characters are mathematicians, and the plot has all the ingredients of a mystery novel, with its enigmas, false leads, suspense, and unexpected twists, thus enticing readers to read on-and learn some of the "smuggled" mathematics as they do. The novel's characteristic feature is perhaps the presence of certain mathematical and philosophical concepts intimately weaved into the plot. These are introduced through dialogue where characters discuss mathematics and its history, or by Descriptions of what goes through their minds. Occasionally, I address the reader directly to present some background material, and for the more mathematically inclined supplements are provided in the appendices. How successful was I? Some readers ignored the mathematics altogether. I was invited to join the International Association of Crime Writers (I declined), was criticized for violating some basic novelistic rules (like not having clearly recognizable protagonists and detracting from the flow of the narrative to "dump" information) and, worst of all, was accused of imitating Dan Brown! On the positive side, I was praised for cleverly using the techniques of fiction as a way of presenting serious mathematical and philosophical ideas, and for writing a gripping novel that offers a refreshing way to learn about mathematics.
Would I try again? Sure. Just as the beauty of music does not lie in the notes written on the score but in the perceived sounds, so the beauty of mathematics is to be found in its concepts and ideas, rather than in the symbolic expressions used to represent them. I believe that those concepts and ideas can be effectively communicated through a work of fiction, so that those who stayed away from what they perceive as the dry world of numbers and equations may discover that mathematics offers far more excitement than they thought.
© Arturo Sangalli 2009