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Sherlock Holmes's Creator Abhorred Math

October 2, 2008

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) dreamed up arguably the world's most famous detective—the exacting and erudite Sherlock Holmes. Doyle himself, however, fretted about his employment prospects and was unable to grasp mathematics.

A lover of the classics, 17-year-old Doyle wrote in 1876 to a friend, "I shall always keep up my knowledge of them." At the same time, he admitted, "mathematics of every sort I detest and abhor." Perhaps that's why Doyle occasionally put a bit of pseudomath into his later writings.

Two years later, seeking his mother's help in finding a job, Doyle told her, "Pray underrate my qualifications, rather than overrate them. Better lose the place than sail under false colours."

Evidence of these admissions appears in Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, recently published in paperback by Penguin. The book comes just as Chicago's Newberry Library hosts its second Sherlock Holmes-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Symposium. Co-sponsoring the event is Hounds of the Baskerville, a group devoted to studying Doyle's work.

Doyle's work includes "Adventure of the Final Problem" (1893), which is the first Sherlock Holmes story featuring James Moriarty as a professor of mathematics. Before he became Holmes's enemy, Moriarty had made his scientific reputation for his extension of the binomial theorem. Holmes says of Moriarty, "At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue."

Mathematically speaking Holmes and Moriarty (and Doyle) didn't know what they were talking about. Moriarty composed this "treatise" in 1865, when he supposedly did his original mathematics. By that time, however, very little remained to be done on the theorem.

The Sherlock Holmes-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Symposium is scheduled for the morning of Oct. 4, 2008. Admission is free, whether you know mathematics or not.

Source: Chicago Tribune, Sept. 29, 2008.

Start Date: 
Thursday, October 2, 2008