Just as mathematics makes use of literary metaphors, literature abounds with ideas that a mathematically attuned eye can detect and explore. This adds an extra dimension to our appreciation of a work of fiction. Melville’s cycloid, for example, is a curious curve with many wonderful properties, but unlike curves such as the parabola and ellipse, you probably haven’t heard of it unless you are a mathematician.
That’s a real shame, because the properties of this curve are so beautiful that it was nicknamed “the Helen of geometry.” Making a cycloid is quite easy. Imagine a wheel rolling along a flat road. Now mark a point on the rim somehow, say, with a blob of paint. That blob will trace out a path in space as the wheel rolls, and this path is called a cycloid.
This is a fairly natural idea, but we don’t have evidence of its being studied until the 16th century, and things didn’t really heat up until the 17th and 18th centuries, when it seemed that everyone who was interested in mathematics had something to say. It was Galileo, for example, who came up with the name “cycloid”: He wrote that he had worked on cycloids for 50 years.
So the fact that the cycloid gets a mention not just in “Moby-Dick” but also in two great works of 18th-century literature, “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Tristram Shandy,” again shows us mathematics in its rightful place — not “other” but part of intellectual life.
Great literature and great mathematics satisfy the same deep yearning in us: for beauty, for truth, for understanding. As the pioneering Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya wrote: “It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul … the poet must see what others do not see, must see more deeply …. And the mathematician must do the same.”
By seeing mathematics and literature as part of the same quest — to understand the world and our place in it — we can add to our experience of both, and bring whole new layers of enjoyment to our favorite writing.
Sarah Hart is a British mathematician and the author of “Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature.”
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