Literature and mathematics… the two sources of imagination and beauty

All human life is a field of culture. I cannot bear to think of culture as a closed box containing poetry, novels, historical blogs, political literature, etc. True culture is science, literature, economics, politics and all human activities.

As long as a person is active in a field on the intellectual level, it is necessary to consider that activity as an element in the human cultural map. No closed and isolated boxes in culture, and no part of life that can be considered remote from the possibility of cultural approach. Our traditional educational systems may have reinforced the elements of separation between the components of human culture. However, the individual remains the one to rely on, often through his own effort, in exploring the obvious or hidden links between the components of human culture.

I remember one day, after the mid-seventies of the last century, that I had the opportunity to see the cover of a book entitled “In Search of Beauty” by its author F. Smilja. I expected the book to deal with classic beauty topics in art and literature, as we were used to at the time. After reading the first page, I learned that the author holds a PhD in mathematical and physical sciences. Then, after reading the first pages of the book, the truth was revealed to me. This is a book about the hidden beauty of mathematics. In the symbolic systems of which mathematics represents the highest status ». There was an ulterior motive for reading the book, and I did. How grateful I am for that small book that opened a new horizon for me in culture, and revealed details that were absent in our general culture.

Mathematics is a language, and this is the root of its conceptual problem in our general culture. It is a language and a system of symbolic thinking, before it is a set of techniques. I still remember that beautiful anecdote in Smilja’s book, which reveals the fact that mathematics is a language before anything else. Smilja tells that Professor Willard Gibbs, one of the greatest American physicists in the early twentieth century, and a professor at the prestigious Yale University in America, was asked about his opinion on reducing math classes in exchange for increasing language classes. He answered curtly, “Mathematics is a language!” In Gibbs’ answer, we glimpse some of the characteristics of mathematics, namely: the economy of expression, and the avoidance of linguistic redundancy, which is nothing more than linguistic foam.

Alain Badiou

The second book that developed my thinking pattern and my passion for the symbolic way of thinking is the book “Mathematics and the Search for Knowledge” by its author, Professor Morris Kline, the encyclopedic author, who in his many books deals with presenting the cultural foundations of mathematics, and opposing existing approaches on the basis that it is a set of tricks for solving technical issues in mathematics. specific context. As for the third book, it is the one written by the French philosopher Alain Badiau, and its title is “In Praise of Mathematics.” I read it in English, and it has not been translated into Arabic. Mathematics, in short, is one of the wonderful cultural achievements of man on the symbolic level.

Mathematical references to literary works


In a newly published book at the beginning of last April 2023, Sarah Hart published a book entitled “Once Upon A Prime.” More beautiful than the title of the main book, “which may seem a little deceitful and mysterious,” is its secondary title, which reveals the truth about the writer’s endeavor; The surprising connections between mathematics and literature.

Hart is Distinguished Professor of Pure Mathematics at Birbeck College, University of London, and is one of the most active writers on the cultural aspects of mathematics. Hart studied at the University of Oxford and holds a PhD from the Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

The author begins her book with a very interesting introduction that tells part of her personal history with literature. She says she has always known stacks of books that the “mainstream literary authority” describes as “must-read,” including Moby Dick. And the writer follows that she procrastinated a lot in reading this novel until a day came when she intended to read it without regression or delay, so she discovered the reservoirs of beauty that are not hidden for every passionate mind. The author believes that Moby Dick is a “reservoir of mathematical metaphors”, and it contains a reference to a mathematical form called the cycloid, then the author goes into referring to novelists whose works contained mathematical implications. Among them: Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michael Crickton (who wrote Jurassic Park, and Steven Spielberg later turned it into a movie). The author confirms that the mathematical references to literary works can be traced in one of the works of Aristophanes, called “The Birds” written around 414 BC. The author writes about the relationship between mathematics and literature and the nature of her subsequent endeavor in the book:

The more fundamental and lofty links between mathematics and literature have not received the attention they deserve. My goal in this book is to convince you that mathematics and literature are not only closely and fundamentally interrelated; Rather, I strive for what is greater than this; Understanding these connections can enhance your enjoyment of both… ».

artificial binary

Mathematics has traditionally been portrayed as a separate endeavor from the creative arts in general; But the truth is that the separating walls between them is a recent idea; Because mathematics has been, throughout history, an essential part of the conceptual and cultural kit of every educated person. For example, we do not find in Plato’s Republic that artificial dualism in dividing the ideal curriculum into “mathematics” and “literature”. We are the ones who perpetuate this artificial division, while we are living the revolutions of science and technology that were far-fetched dreams of Plato!

The author explains the basic relationship between mathematics and literature in the context of these statements in the introduction:

“I’ve always liked patterns; Patterns of letters, numbers, or shapes. I loved patterns before I knew what I was doing was called mathematics, and little by little it became clear to me that I was on my way to being a mathematician; However, the matter was not without undesirable consequences. According to the British educational system in recent decades, mathematics has become treated exclusively on the basis of being a subject of science only, far from the humanities. If you want to study mathematics after you reach the age of sixteen, you must choose the scientific field rather than the literary field…».

I remember, in my last high school English lesson in 1991, my teacher handed me a long list, carefully written and neatly written, of book titles that she thought might resonate with my passion, which she knows. The teacher said to me in sad words, “Sorry we lost you, and math won you!”

After the rich introduction, the author begins the body of her book, which she distributed into 3 sections, which included a total of 10 chapters. The first section dealt with mathematics in the context of structure, creativity, and limitations, and included titles such as; Poetry Styles, Narrative Geometry. The second section dealt with narrative patterns in mathematics, and included chapters. Here are some of their titles: Numerical Symbolism in the Novel, Mathematical Metaphors in the Novel, and the Mathematics of Myth. In the third section, the author deals with specific literary works, in which mathematics has become the basic framing story.

At the end of this brief review of Hart’s book, I like to refer to an article I wrote about 5 or 6 years ago, entitled “I am a Novelist; So I hate mathematics!” In it, I indicated that we often hear statements by some poets, novelists, or those working in literary fields in general, declaring their hatred of mathematics to the extent of boasting about this hatred, and that they see mathematics as a complex analytical requirement that is not consistent with the literary preoccupations and the imagination that literature requires. .

Mathematics and literature are two inexhaustible sources of fascination, beauty, and imagination that extends without borders. This fact is some of what Hart’s reader feels the credibility of the fine evidence that her amazing book is full of.

“An event with a prime number… The surprising connections between literature and mathematics”

Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature

Author: Sarah Hart

Publisher: Flatiron Books

304 pages