From Alice in Wonderland to the Hitchhiker's Guide: top 10 books about mathematics

From Lewis Carroll to Douglas Adams and even Dostoevsky, the imaginative possibilities of numbers have animated some dazzling fiction

Stories and mathematics have always been woven together in my mind – two foundational ways of looking at the world, not incompatible but complementary. When I was growing up, my mother told me myths and fairytales at bedtime, while my father recounted stories of famous mathematicians and gave me his favourite maths riddles to try to solve. Which is maybe why in my new novel, The Tenth Muse, I try to bring the two together, while challenging the many mistaken assumptions people hold about maths. My protagonist is a brilliant and ambitious mathematician who happens to be a woman tackling one of her subject’s most pressing conundrums.

I hope her journey provides a history of mathematics and the ways it has changed the world, the challenges women in particular have faced in trying to join its professional ranks, and a glimpse of how exhilarating it can be. My favourite kind of maths reveals the outer reaches of the imagination and how in finding a solution it is possible to illuminate an idea. Maths can shine a light on both the simplest and most complex things; the same is true of my favourite literature.

So if you’re in search of a glorious read packed with mathematical thoughts, here is a list of some of the most inventive, mind-bending, wondrous books I know:

1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Many assume this book – with its pills and potions and magic mushrooms – is about drugs. But scholar Melanie Bayley suggests it owes its mind-bending quality to maths. Carroll was the pen name for mathematician Charles Dodgson, who disliked the symbolic algebra and projective geometry that were gaining favour in his day. He satirised them by taking them to their most bizarre extremes: Alice’s height fluctuates rather than staying constant, the multiplication table falls off base 10, and when Alice grows back after an episode of shrinking, she finds herself all out of proportion. Though Carroll may not have been a fan of this kind of maths, his experimental, perception-distorting Wonderland makes an irresistible case for the exhilarating playfulness of maths and the mind’s infinite weirdness.

2. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Milo comes upon a road sign directing him to Digitopolis, which is five miles, 1,600 Rods, 8,800 yards, 26,400 feet, 316,800 inches and 633,600 half-inches away. “Let’s travel by miles,” advises the Humbug. “It’s shorter.” Milo responds: “Let’s travel by half-inches, it’s quicker.” Soon after, they are led by a creature called the Dodecahedron to their destination, where they learn about the land of Infinity, and Milo meets one half of a child (or 0.58 of a child, to be precise) who represents the fraction of the average family that has 2.58 children. An enchanting exploration of how to pay attention to the world, full of wisdom, logic puzzles and fun.

3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ivan’s love for the sticky leaves in spring, his longing for and subsequent rejection of harmony and forgiveness, since it demands he accept the suffering of children, have stayed with me, along with this passage tying those ideas to maths: “If God indeed created the Earth,” he says, “he created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind … Yet there have been geometricians and philosophers [who] even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on Earth, may meet somewhere in infinity.” The year I read this was the same year I learned about hyperbolic space, where – as it turns out – parallel lines can and do meet. I became a maths major: how could I resist?

4. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Sofia Kovalevskaya was a 19th-century mathematician at a time when women were not allowed in most of Europe to attend university. She married a man who promised to take her to Germany to study, and she became a pioneer, making major contributions to the field and becoming the first woman in Europe to obtain a doctorate in mathematics. Still, her life was filled with tragedy and disappointment, and the title story of Alice Munro’s collection is a rich but searing fictional account of her life.

Precise nonsense (from left) Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell and Mos Def in the 2005 film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Precise nonsense (from left) Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell and Mos Def in the 2005 film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Photograph: Photo: Laurie Sparham/film still handout

5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
In this jubilantly madcap novel, we’re asked to consider bistromathematics, where the relationship between the items on the bill, the cost of each and the number of people at the table proves that: “Numbers written on restaurant cheques within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe.” Perhaps it’s the very precision of mathematics, its very seriousness, that makes it so delightful to see it used in the service of nonsense.

6. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
An astoundingly lovely book about a woman who comes to work for a once-great mathematician. Due to a traumatic brain injury, he has only 80 minutes of short-term memory available to him before he forgets everything. Also about kindness and love, loyalty and loss, it is filled with beautiful maths, simply and clearly described alongside finely drawn relationships between the characters.

7. The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin
In the ancient world, maths, physics, and philosophy were studied together as “natural philosophy”. The disciplines were broken apart with the development of modern science, but it’s good to remember that once they were united. I recommend everything Le Guin has ever written, but for the purposes of this list, I urge you to read this one in particular. It is about a mathematical physicist and activist who is grappling with theories of time and how they define two different societies, and what our understanding of the natural world suggests about reality, perception, and how it comes to bear on personal, existential, philosophical and moral questions.

8. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
This collection contains several maths-y stories, my favourite of which is Division By Zero, about a brilliant mathematician. To her great despair, she ends up proving that mathematics is inconsistent (and is able to prove that any two numbers are equal). A beautiful, thought-provoking story (in a beautiful, thought-provoking collection) about belief, understanding, faith and love.

9. The Ore Miner’s Wife by Karl Iagnemma
This absolutely gorgeous story from Iagnemma’s collection On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction is about a miner who thinks he’s discovered the proof to the problem: construct a square, equal in area to a given circle. His wife, not knowing what has suddenly taken his attention and his time, fears he is being unfaithful. A moving exploration of the solitude of the mind, the joys of entering a problem whole and the desire and impossibility of truly knowing those we love.

10. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
A sprawling, virtuosically told novel ablaze with ideas and passion. Set during the invasion of Afghanistan and the financial crisis of the aughts and narrated by a mathematician-turned-investment banker recounting the story of a lost college friend who was also once a mathematician, this is a complex, far-reaching book about history, politics, race and class, as well as love and exile. And maths.

• The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy, go to Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

Catherine Chung

The GuardianTramp

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