A Week in Books: Maths made interesting

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The Independent Culture

There used to be an unofficial rule among popular-science writers: put mathematical equations in your book and you risk halving its readership. Well (as fans of Mark Haddon might say), it all depends on the book. Last week, Random House announced that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - punctuated from start to finish by equations, graphs and diagrams - had sold a million paperbacks at a record-breaking rate. Of course, Haddon's is not the first "crossover" sensation to sprinkle its pages with numerical - and logical - puzzles. An Oxford maths lecturer named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had much the same idea in 1865, when "Lewis Carroll" plunged Alice into Wonderland.

Yet the thunderous avalanche of Haddon's sales and honours (18 awards so far) has pushed mass-market maths into new and exotic territory. As mathematical education languishes in schools and even universities, popular narratives - in fiction, biography and film - offer a quick way to showcase the beauty and mystery of a discipline too often tied to bafflement or boredom.

This exposure can sometimes come at a steep cost. Maths finds itself either enlisted into the perennial media fight against the Nazis (as in the cryptography of Enigma) or else branded as the foremost sign of interesting personal dysfunction (think A Beautiful Mind). Haddon's approach is not so reductive. The mathematical passions of Christopher Boone serve not just as a symptom of the lonely teenager's Asperger's syndrome, but as a mine of metaphors for the human complexity that he struggles to grasp: "Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life."

Because popular storytelling has the gift of yoking gentle enlightenment to entertainment, desperate maths buffs may expect too much of it. The Greek novelist and polymath Apostolos Doxiadis inaugurated the current wave of mathematical fictions with Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (available in his own English translation since 2000 but first published in Athens in 1993). Doxiadis - who knows and loves The Curious Incident... - says that he was surprised when mathematicians started to attribute a teacher's "missionary zeal" to his novel, which charts an eccentric's tragi-comic quest for a proof that has eluded the finest minds since 1742. He had meant the work as fiction, not as instruction: "At first I found it offensive, but the fact that the book achieved that effect was something that interested me and moved me."

Where can the mathematically informed novel move next? As a joke, Doxiadis once told a senior publishing figure that he was working on a sequel, "Aunt Maria and Riemann's Hypothesis". The publisher, apparently, beamed with quite unironic delight. In fact, Doxiadis has something rather more extraordinary up his sleeve: a massive graphic novel to be called Logicomix, co-created with a computer scientist and a pair of artists. It will tell the story of the birth of computing out of advances in 20th-century logic, with starring roles for such modern icons as Russell, Wittgenstein and Turing.

In the meantime, readers of The Curious Incident... who can spot the poetry as well as the pathology in Christopher's maths should look forward to Scarlett Thomas's hugely ingenious PopCo (due from Fourth Estate next month). I won't spoil the mind-stretching fun, but will alert you that the novel closes not merely with a crossword and a recipe, but with a table of the first 1,000 prime numbers. Even Christopher, who knows "every prime number up to 7,507" (which is only the 951st), never got quite that far.