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At a first glance, Mathematics and Literature look like two completely unrelated subjects.

I wonder whether there are examples of acclaimed mathematicians which wrote novels, poems, or other literary works not related to mathematics.


EDIT. Following a request by HDE 226868, I invite all the answerers to give some more details about the author and the cited literary works, whenever possible. Thanks to all of you.

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    $\begingroup$ Betrand Russell wrote some novels : Satan in the suburbs: and other stories. $\endgroup$ – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 5 '17 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ Would you count Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) as an "acclaimed mathematician" and would you count his literary works (e.g. Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, "Jabberwocky") as "not related to mathematics"? Both of those claims are arguable. $\endgroup$ – Rory Daulton Feb 5 '17 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ @RoryDaulton: Good point! However, I would place Lewis Carroll in the category of novelists rather than acclaimed mathematicians. $\endgroup$ – Ludwig Feb 5 '17 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ I know that this question has garnered a lot of attention. It would be nice if answerers could describe the author and the work they're referencing in more detail. Two-line answers are often useless, or not very informative, and a lot of answers so far have been like that. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Feb 7 '17 at 18:31

17 Answers 17

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Hausdorff wrote many literary and philosophical works, including poems and a play, under the pseudonym Paul Mongré.

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Bertrand Russell wrote many books and essays on philosophy and social justice, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature.

And the Persian mathematician Omar Khayyám wrote poetry: quatrains that have been translated into English as the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

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    $\begingroup$ I think Omar Khayyam is a great answer to this question, as both his mathematics and poetry are top-rate. $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Feb 6 '17 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ Current scholarly opinion is that the poems attributed to Omar are all spurious. $\endgroup$ – fdb Feb 15 '17 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @fdb Do you have a source for that? I can imagine some academic trying to make a career out of being “original” and raising doubt, but doubt that scholarly consensus is that the poems are all spurious. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012) says “There is considerable doubt as to the attribution of a large part of Khayyām’s poetry, but about 50 poems are clearly authentic, while a large number of others are also thought to be so.” $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Mar 5 '17 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ @ShreevatsaR: books.google.co.uk/… pp. 299-307 $\endgroup$ – fdb Mar 18 '17 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ @fdb Thanks, that's interesting. I'm convinced about what this particular scholar thinks (or thought in 2004), at least. :-) His position is that “It is accepted now, I should think, by everyone that the great majority of the quatrains that have come to be ascribed to ʿUmar could not possibly be his.” (p. 304) and “it remains quite plausible that […] none of the rubāʿiyāt are authentic” (p. 305). Am not yet convinced that the scholarly consensus is definitive that all poems are spurious. $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Mar 18 '17 at 16:04
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Many mathematicians wrote their autobiographies, see the answers to https://mathoverflow.net/questions/102597/history-question-autobiography-of-mathematicians/102676#102676

Quite a few also have engaged in writing literary fiction.

For example, Sofya Kovalevskaya (apart from memories about her childhood) wrote a novel: Nihilist Girl, translated by Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirin ; introduction by Natasha Kolchevska. Modern Language Association of America (2001) ISBN 0-87352-790-9.

Kovalevskaya also collaborated with Anne Charlotte Leffler on a play (according to the Wikipedia page of Leffler, the title is The struggle for happiness).

In our times, Michèle Audin, known for her achievements in symplectic geometry, is a member of Oulipo.

She recently published a novel: La formule de Stokes, roman, Cassini, 2016, 297 p. (ISBN 9782842252069) However, in view of the preferred mode of creation by Oulipo, this work may be not entirely unrelated to mathematics. It is a novel, though, not a scholarly or popularizing work.

Some other examples can be found among answers to this question:https://mathoverflow.net/questions/45185/pseudonyms-of-famous-mathematicians/62966#62966

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Several mathematicians wrote excellent recollections about their own life. Some of them are of high quality as literature. My favorite ones are by Weyl, Rudin and L. Schwartz.

David Ruelle (a famous mathematical physicist) wrote some philosophical fiction.

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The mathematician E. T. Bell (known for Bell numbers, and the first stirrings of umbral calculus) wrote many science-fiction novels under the name John Taine. Arthur C. Clarke considered John Taine one of his heroes. (According to Constance Reid's The Search for E. T. Bell: also known as John Taine, which is a wonderful work of history/biography.)

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The Romanian mathematician Dan Barbilian was better known as the modernist poet Ion Barbu. It's interesting that the English wikipedia page deals mostly with his mathematical research. Also it is worth mentioning that he was the first to introduce Modern Algebra (a la Van der Waerden) in Romania.

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The mathematician Jordan Ellenberg (University page, personal website, Wikipedia article, blog) wrote a novel called The Grasshopper King in 2003. Does this satisfy your criteria?

  • "Acclaimed mathematician": child prodigy, two-time Putnam fellow, Guggenheim Fellowship (2015)
  • "novels, poems, or other literary works not related to mathematics": The Grasshopper King is a novel, and not related to mathematics in any way. The setting of the (very funny) book is that of a university professor (of languages/literature) who has stopped speaking, so it is related to academia in some sense, but I don't remember any mathematics in the book.
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Rudy Rucker writes science fiction. Some of his novels explore mathematical concepts such as infinity. Ian Stewart, who is best known for his popular science and mathematics books (including the Science of Discworld books), has also written a couple of science fiction novels with Jack Cohen.

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An obscure one, perhaps.

Emanuel Lasker cowrote Vom Menschen die Geschichte ("History of Mankind"), a play, with his brother in 1925. He has other works, although at least part of those were related to mathematics and game theory with his prediction in "Kampf" (Struggle) of a social science of the future. In many ways this foresaw the application of game theory in the social sciences.

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Donald Knuth wrote a novel about surreal numbers (and he coined the term): "Surreal Numbers: How Two Ex-Students Turned on to Pure Mathematics and Found Total Happiness".

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    $\begingroup$ This is an obvious example to readers of Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games columns in Scientific American or the compilations into books, but this clearly does not fit the requirement that the literary work be "not related to mathematics". $\endgroup$ – Rory Daulton Feb 11 '17 at 12:02
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Needless to say, Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014) was one of the greatest (and perhaps the most visionary) mathematician of the XX century.

In 1987-88 he wrote a manuscript entitled “La Clef des Songes - ou Dialogue avec le Bon Dieu” (which can be translated as “The key of dreams - or conversation with the good Lord”).

The manuscript consist of 6 chapters, 315 pages, plus hundreds of pages of added notes. It describes Grothendieck's arrival at the conviction of the existence of God, through his discovery of the meaning and significance of dreams. It also contains a wealth of personal biographical details on his early childhood, on the period spent in a French internment camp for undesirables during World War II and then in the Protestant foyer for Jewish children in Le Chambon sur Lignon, and on his parents. [source]

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Greg Egan is a hard science fiction writer (Permutation City, Oceanic, Distress etc.), he also does some interesting computer science programming/research and he has collaborated with John Baez on many projects: https://plus.google.com/113086553300459368002

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Christos Papadimitriou collaborated with Apostolos Doxiadis (who had written Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (2000)) to write the graphic novel Logicomix: An epic search for truth (2009). As the Amazon page describes it, "This story is at the same time a historical novel and an accessible explication of some of the biggest ideas of mathematics and modern philosophy. With rich characterizations and expressive, atmospheric artwork, the book spins the pursuit of these ideas into a highly satisfying tale."

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Pierre de Fermat wrote a 101-line hexameter poem in Latin that was recently translated into English.

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Georg Cantor wrote a religious text:

EX ORIENTE LUX. Gespräche eines Meisters mit seinem Schüler über wesentliche Punkte des urkundlichen Christentums. Berichtet vom Schüler selbst Georg Jakob Aaron, cand. sacr. theol. Erstes Gespräch. Herausgegeben von G. Cantor, Halle 1905.

Light from the East. Talks of a master with his pupil about the essential points of the original Christianity. Reported by the pupil himself.

The essay concludes with a refusal of Catholicism: "It remains until the end of all days resting on an unshakeable rock, Christ himself: the invisible church, which He has founded. He is the Lord who does not need a governor on earth."

An Essay about the true author of Shakespeares works Cantor wanted to start with the following autobiographical peom as an introduction:

Allen stets zu gefallen ist Loos nur den Kindern Fortunens,

Wen'gen Erlesenen, ach, selten glückt's dem Verdienst;

Niemandem recht es zu machen, von Allen geschmäht und verhöhnt sein,

Bitter trägt dies der Mann, schmerzvoll entsagend das Weib.

Dennoch, verweigern die Götter grausam die Gunst mir des Mittlern,

Steh' ich und habe die Wahl, nur von den Aeussersten Ein's:

Einsam unentwegt folg ich den Spuren der Wahrheit,

Freudig verzichtend hinfür jeglichem Beifall der Welt.

[H. Meschkowski, W. Nilson (eds.): Georg Cantor Briefe, Springer, Berlin (1991), p. 418]

By the way, Cantor was also an excellent painter. See section 4 here.

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Errett Bishop penned the following intriguing poem, cited here:

Formalism. The devil is very neat. It is his pride// To keep his house in order. Every bit// Of trivia has its place. He takes great pains// To see that nothing ever does not fit.// And yet his guests are queasy. All their food,// Served with a flair and pleasant to the eye,// Goes through like sawdust. Pity the perfect host!// The devil thinks and thinks and he cannot cry.

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Jacques Dixmier published two books of short stories in science fiction, L'Aurore des dieux (1993) and Le Septième arrhe (1995).

And one more co-authored with Alain Connes and Danye Chéreau: Le Spectre d’Atacama (2018); recently reviewed by @Gro-Tsen.

David Bessis published a novel (Sprats, 2005) and a "sentimental atlas" (Ars grammatica, 2006).

Recommended: Michèle Audin, La Formule de Stokes, roman (2016), already mentioned in this thread; gave me several fits of the giggles in the past hour.

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