Book cover of Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature and author Sarah Hart headshot

The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature

We should enjoy math like we do music: as patterns and poetry with logic to understand our world and ourselves.

“Mathematics is a way to coerce the chaos into sense.” So writes mathematician Sarah Hart in her 2023 book Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature.

Her book is a charming collection of how mathematics is used and appears in great writing — and bad writing too. The book has three sections: numbers as structure; numbers as metaphor and phrases and numbers as character. I enjoyed it, and recommend it for writers, readers and those interested in how the world works.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

My notes:

  • “Three voids teeth” means 32,000 in Sanskrit (32 teeth)
  • Melville ‘s cycloid (the Helen of geometry, different curve than parabola or ellipse)
  • Eleanor Catton in The Luminaries writes of geometric progression
  • Euclid’s Elements of Geometry (300 BC): “ they are probably the most influential mathematics books of all time”
  • Patterns of Poetry: from nursery rhymes to sestina and villanelle
  • Pilish
  • Bell number: how many rhyme combos of a set of lines: Genji-ko players in older Japan know there are 52 for a set of 5; for quatrain it’s 15
  • The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables are called feet; iambic pantemeter is most famous but iambs are joined by trochee (quote the Raven); dactyl (Lost Leader by Robert Browning)
  • Jordan Ellenberg’s Shape references Sanskrit that splits either light (laghu) or heavy syllables
  • Fibanacci sequence
  • Vonnegut graphs in a 2004 lecture
  • Luminaries new book uses arithmetic progression and other constraints (Gauss equation to total the number of sections)
  • Vs geometric progression
  • English writer EM Forster (1879-1970): In every novel there is a clock
  • George’s Perec’s Life a Users Manual (first published in French in 1978) tells just a moment in history
  • Kathleen Ollerenshaw British mathematician and politician (1912-2014)
  • 1959: 10×10 Latin square solved
  • “Mathematics is the lodestone of structure” so the Oulipo emerging literature group was interested
  • Nicholas Bourbaki
  • Lipogram
  • Two rules for constraints: the constraint must refer to itself (La Disparition doesn’t use e snd its plot refers to missing e
  • Italo Calvino in his second-person novel Winters Night Traveler. “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice” (Or Philadelphia)
  • Calvino most liked his Invisible Cities book because he was able to say the “maximum number of things in the smallest numbers of words”
  • Interval graph
  • Fano plane
  • Theater tree by Paul Fournel to limit end points in interactive theater (or choose your own adventure books)
  • Mobius strip
  • Circular story
  • The Unfortunates from 1969 a “meaningful work of fiction” not just an intellectual exercise
  • 25! Uses exclamation point as factorial
  • Three sections to this book: numbers as structure; numbers as metaphor and phrases; numbers as character
  • 1754: origins of the word serendipity is the classical Persian name for Sri Lanka
  • 1968 essay The Number Three in American Culture by Alan Dundes is an example of many numbers that have various cultural distinctions
  • In many nursery rhymes “trebling is common,” (row row row your boat)
  • Trichotomies
  • “acep that promise.
  • Moby-Dick was written in 1850 and published in 1851. Reviews were… mixed. Harpers: New Monthly Magazine loved it, “The genius of the author for moral analysis is scarcely surpassed by his wizard power of description.” But a reviewer for the London Athenaeum felt that “Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are Aung side by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature.” It’s amazing to think that the author of Moby-Dick more or less gave up writing within a few years of its publication; he spent the last two decades of his life working for the US customs service and died in obscurity in 1891. His lifetime earnings from perhaps the most influential American novel of the nineteenth century amounted to $556.37. We don’t know much about Melville the man–as an indication of how carefully he guarded his privacy, he used to hang a towel over the doorknob of his study so that nobody could look through the keyhole. Few of his letters survive, and all that his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne could find to say was that, although he was a gentleman, he was ” little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.”
  • This book goes really really deep on math in Moby-dick: researcher Meredith Farmer found Melville had an impressive young math teacher (Joseph Henry) so perhaps he was exposed to great math
  • “Mathematics is a way to coerce the chaos into sense”
  • Tolstoy in War and Peace used equations
  • “Calculus is the technique that allows us to deal with these infinitesimal numbers rather than imposing an artificial division into separate units” (like the ever-changing speed of a car trip)
  • Gnomon
  • “Arithmetic is not mathematics, just like spelling is not literature.”
  • “Performative arithmetic” author calls when authors toss in math they haven’t actually done to give sense of truth (ie Gullivers Travelers mention his body was 1,724 times as big)
  • Square cube law suggests most giants in literature couldn’t exist (their bones would break because the femur breaks at 10 times the pressure; conversely small is better (Lilliputians that are 1/12 the size would have terminal velocity of 4.2 meters per second and can survive a fall at 42, so can fall from anywhere. Conversely human terminal velocity falling reaches 50 meters per second and can only survive 12 meters per second (JBS Haldane notes this in 1927 “On Being the Right Size”)
  • James Watt (of steam engine and the watt unit) recognized heat loss problem of early steam engines because of square cube law
  • Kleibers Law
  • HG Wells’s Time Machine (1895) popularized time as the 4th dimension
  • Flatland and Plainverse present world-creation problems
  • Dragon curve from 1967 (also depicted in Jurassic Park book)
  • Fractals were entering popular imagination in 1990s: Jurassic park, John Updike’z 1986 novel Roger’s Version
  • Koch snowflake is an example
  • In 1839 Poe challenged readers of a Philadelphia magazine to send him encrypted messages
  • Substitution cipher like Caesar shift
  • Neal Stephenson’s Cryptononicon
  • Dan Brown’s bizarre inconsistencies with cryptography and mathematics in his books aren’t the only reason his popularity was criticized. There’s also his writing style, of course. Consider just one line from his followup Digital Fortress about another beautiful young female cryptographer working with a wise older male academic: “Susan Fletcher’s legs. Hard to imagine they support a 170 IQ.”
  • Life of Pi 227 days at sea (22/7)
  • Jorge Luis Borges Library of Babel: she works the math of how many books (torus!)
  • “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life,” Borges said, “I should say my father’s library”
  • Lewis Carrol was a mathematician first and author second
  • Foundation and Asimov and other fantasy novels with mathematicians being purely logical “ the beguiling fantasy, that scientists, and especially mathematicians, are driven by pure reason, the cleverness can get you out of any fix, and that everything can finally make sense if you can just ramify the ninth dimensional, asthma, topes over a tangential vector field. Sadly, you can’t, first, because life isn’t like that, and second, because I’ve just made up all those phrases, so they are meaningless.”
  • These kinds of characters are just logical plot devices, they only make choices because of the math, they are amoral
  • Elegy “Full many a flower, is born to blush unseen / and waste its sweetness on the desert air”
  • “To say, it’s pointless doing it (mathematics) unless you were going to be amazing at it is as stupid as saying, nobody should play sports except Olympic athletes.”
  • Goldbachs conjecture (referenced in Uncle Petros short story)
  • Curious Dog book, narrator says “Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical, but you could never work out the rules, even if you spend all your time thinking about them.”
  • Tennyson’s Valley of Sin poem first included a line to a man dying every minute and being born. Babbage wrote a letter teasing that it’s inaccurate — changed to moment
  • Fermat’s last theorem or Fermat’s last boast?
  • “Fractals are the geometry of nature”
  • Too Much Happiness I’d a well liked book that follows Kovalevskaya A real first woman to get mathematics PhD : “ many people who have never had occasion to learn with mathematics, is confused with arithmetic and considered a dry and arid science. An actual fact it is the science which demands the most imagination…. It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.”

Leave a Reply