You are here

Mathematics in Popular Culture

Publisher: 
McFarland & Company
Number of Pages: 
345
Price: 
45.00
ISBN: 
9780786489947

Mathematics is the only area of human intellectual endeavor where it is considered socially acceptable and even desirable to make the claim that “I was never good at it.” All teachers of mathematics are familiar with being at a social gathering, meeting people for the first time and hearing that after they respond to the question, “What do you do?” Therefore it is not surprising that the popular media tends to distort the purpose and usage of mathematics. Movies are made and books are written for people to experience their contents. If something is disliked by the general public, entertainers will avoid it.

In this book of academic essays, you will learn about some of the depictions of mathematics in the popular culture. (The book is part of a series on popular culture from McFarland, an academic publisher that does not usually publish mathematics.) The table of contents shows that the book has a broad range, so that few people will be familiar with all of the descriptions of popular cultural material in which mathematics has been used. For example, there is a lengthy article on the television series “Lost” and references to movies such as “Stand and Deliver.” As is almost always the case when one is discussing the use of mathematics in an item of pop culture, there is a great deal of legitimate room for reasonable and mathematically knowledgeable people to disagree over the quality of the presentation. As I read some of the essays about books or movies that I have not experienced, I was motivated to do further research.

By far my favorite essay in this collection was “The Mathematical Misanthrope and American Popular Culture,” by Kenneth Faulkner. While there are mentions of Kurt Gödel and Albert Einstein, the primary focus of the article is on the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Nobel Prize winner John Nash, two people where the phrase “Mathematical Misanthrope” would apply to the public perception of mathematicians. I was not aware that while he was at Harvard Kaczynski was subjected to a series of intense psychiatric tests designed to produce severe stress. At his trial, even though he was judged sane and competent, Kaczynski was denied his request to defend himself. It appears as if the legal community did all it could to keep him silent. While he is clearly misguided, there seems little doubt that Kaczynski is very sane and capable of making intelligent social commentary. One can easily envision him as a member of many of the revolutionary movements that are now part of history books, with some of the bombers now considered national heroes.

John Nash is an incredible success story, both as a mathematician as well as in his personal battle against severe mental illness. He suffered greatly while undergoing medical “treatment” and it was his will to overcome combined with loving support that made it possible for Nash to conquer his demons.

In this collection of essays on how math is depicted, the arguments and conclusions are very subjective, an area in which mathematicians rarely dwell. Yet, it is important for mathematicians to serve as a corrective rudder to the popular expression of mathematics, making the reading of this book both entertaining and culturally important.


Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

Date Received: 
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Reviewable: 
Yes
Include In BLL Rating: 
No
Jessica K. Sklar and Elizabeth S. Sklar, editors
Publication Date: 
2012
Format: 
Paperback
Category: 
Anthology
Charles Ashbacher
06/11/2012

Acknowledgments      vi
Foreword by Keith Devlin      1
Introduction
JESSICA K. SKLAR and ELIZABETH S. SKLAR      3

Part One: The Game
A Survey of Fictional Mathematics in Literature
ALEX KASMAN      9
"You Never Said Anything about Math": Math Phobia and Math Fanaticism in the World of Lost
KRISTINE LARSEN      27
What’s in a Name? The Matrix as an Introduction to Mathematics
KRIS GREEN      44
Mapping Contagion and Disease, Catastrophe and Destruction: Computer Modeling in the Epidemiological Disaster Narrative
KATHLEEN COYNE KELLY and DOUGLAS WHITTINGTON      55
Fair and Unfair Division in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon
WILLIAM GOLDBLOOM BLOCH and MICHAEL D. C. DROUT      71
Game Theory in Popular Culture: Battles of Wits and Matters of Trust
JENNIFER FIRKINS NORDSTROM      86
Coming Out of the Dungeon: Mathematics and Role-Playing Games
KRIS GREEN      99
Playing Moneyball: Math and Baseball
JEFF HILDEBRAND      114
A Mathematician Does the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle
GENE ABRAMS      123

Part Two: The Players
XKCD: A Web of Popular Culture
KAREN BURNHAM      137
Counting with the Sharks: Math-Savvy Gamblers in Popular Culture
MATTHEW LANE      148
Stand and Deliver Twenty Years Later
KSENIJA SIMIC-MULLER, MAURA VARLEY GUTIERREZ and RODRIGO JORGE GUTIERREZ      163
Smart Girls: The Uncanny Daughters of Arcadia and Proof
SHARON ALKER and ROBERTA DAVIDSON      172
Mean Girls: A Metamorphosis of the Female Math Nerd
KRISTIN ROWAN      187
The Mathematical Misanthrope and American Popular Culture
KENNETH FAULKNER      198
Alan Turing: Reflecting on the Life, Work, and Popular Representations of a Queer Mathematician
K. G. VALENTE      219
Mat(t)h Anxiety: Math as Symptom in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting
DONALD L. HOFFMAN      233

Part Three: Math + Metaphor
Thinking Outside the Box: Application Versus Discovery in Saw and Cube
JESSICA K. SKLAR      247
Tolstoy’s Integration Metaphor from War and Peace
STEPHEN T. AHEARN      258
"We’ll all change together": Mathematics as Metaphor in Greg Egan’s Fiction
NEIL EASTERBROOK      265
Truth by the Numbers: Mysticism and Madness in Darren Aronofsky’s π
LAURIE A. FINKE and MARTIN B. SHICHTMAN      274
Flatland in Popular Culture
LILA MARZ HARPER      288
Discovering a Higher Plane: Dimensionality and Enlightenment in Flatland and Diaspora
CHRIS PAK      304
Projective Geometry in Early Twentieth-Century Esotericism: From the Anthroposophical Society to the Thoth Tarot
RICHARD KACZYNSKI      314

Appendices
A: Mathematics in Performance Media      333
B: Mathematics in Fiction and Poetry      334
About the Contributors      337
Index      341

Publish Book: 
Modify Date: 
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dummy View - NOT TO BE DELETED