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The Shape of Content: Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science

A K Peters
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In recent years, there have been an increasing number of creative works which are inspired by mathematicians and by mathematics itself. These works include movies such as A Beautiful Mind and Pi, plays like Arcadia and Proof, and novels ranging from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon to Susan Choi's A Person of Interest (and I should probably also mention The Da Vinci Code somewhere in here, despite strong inclinations otherwise). One can certainly debate the quality of each of these individual items — some are dull despite accurate portrayals of mathematics, others are wonderful despite their unfair caricatures of our profession, and a small handful manage to excel on multiple levels. However, this reviewer strongly believes that, taken as a whole, the trend is good for mathematics and good for mathematicians, as these works show different facets of our jobs and our personalities and possibly contribute to keeping the spirit of math alive in the public eye.

Marjorie Wikler Senechal and Chandler Davis must agree with me on this point, as they chose to actively encourage and engage mathematicians in contributing to this growing body of creative works. To help facilitate this, they have organized a series of conferences at the Banff Centre which have been attended both by scientists wishing to do creative writing and by writers who are interested in mathematics and the sciences. And now, along with Jan Zwicky, they have compiled some of the works produced through these workshops in a collection entitled The Shape of Content which was recently published by AK Peters.

Even compared to other anthologies, the works collected in The Shape of Content vary incredibly in style and tone. Twenty-one authors contributed thirty-seven pieces to the book, including short stories, poems, and excerpts from dramatic pieces. The reader knows they are in for a wild ride when the first two entries in the book are a piece of metafiction by Marco Abate about exploring Evariste Galois's life and a humor piece by Colin Adams about a mathematical case before the Supreme Court. Later pieces include a nonfiction essay by Marjorie Wikler Senechal about Eric Neville, "The Last Second Wrangler", poems by Emily Grosholz including "Trying to describe the reals in Cambridge", and a clever short story by Alex Kasman entitled "On the Quantum Theoretic Implications of Newton's Alchemy."

As an aside, readers who have never seen it before are encouraged to check out Kasman's Mathematical Fiction Bibliography online, which has descriptions of over 700 novels about mathematics and mathematicians.

This reviewer does not feel qualified to write a traditional review of this book, in which he would assess the quality of individual pieces to give you a sense of whether they are worth your time. In particular, while I do read quite a bit of fiction, I can probably count on one hand the number of collections of poetry that I have read since my undergraduate days, and I am not sure I have ever read a piece of 'metafiction' before. However, my guess is that if you have made it this far into the review, you probably found the description of at least one of the above ideas intriguing. If so, given that all of the pieces are short and quick to read (especially compared to dense mathematical writing), you will probably want to track down a copy of the book to check it out for yourself.

Darren Glass is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Gettysburg College whose research interests include Number Theory, Algebraic Geometry, and Cryptography. He can be reached at

Date Received: 
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Include In BLL Rating: 
Chandler Davis, Marjorie Wikler Senechal, and Jan Zwicky, editors
Publication Date: 
Darren Glass
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Modify Date: 
Tuesday, February 17, 2009