Math in the Media

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Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama," by David Foster Wallace. Science, 22 December 2000, pages 2263-2267. "Math Melodrama Rings of Reality," Letter to the Editor by W. Wistar Comfort and Philipp Rothmaler, Science, 2 March 2001, pages 1072.

In a little over five closely filled pages (including one consisting almost entirely of long footnotes), novelist David Foster Wallace provides a peppery and erudite assessment of two recent novels involving mathematics, The Wild Numbers, by Philibert Schogt and Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, by Apostolos Doxiadis. As works of literature, Wallace asserts, the books are not very good. But the real problem is the way they describe mathematics. That the mathematics in The Wild Numbers is entirely fictional seems to indicate that the book is aimed at non-mathematician readers. But rather than giving readers an authentic feeling for what mathematics is like, the book settles instead for flashy-sounding, imaginary mathematics jargon. What's more, as literary narrative it is "off-the-charts bad," Wallace writes. He finds Uncle Petros, which has at its center a real mathematics problem that stands unsolved today, to be the better book from the literary standpoint. The problem here is that the description of the mathematics veers from the utterly basic (e.g., the narrator defines terms like "integer") to the highly sophisticated (e.g., readers are expected to understand the phrase "orders of the torsion subgroups"). What is more, the book does not accurately capture the state-of-the-art of work on Goldbach's Conjecture in the era in which the book is set, the early part of the 20th century. Wallace disappointedly concludes that the books will appeal neither to nonmathematicians nor to professional mathematicians. The Letter to the Editor lauds Wallace's' "spirited, witty, and informative review" but corrects some of his statements concerning Goedel's incompleteness theorem. A response from Wallace follows the letter.

--- Allyn Jackson