Once Upon A Prime Review – Why Maths And Literature Make A Winning Formula?

The Library, as some refer to it, comprises an uncountable, maybe endless, number of hexagonal galleries. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges begins in this manner, and it is adored by math nerds and literature nerds alike for the way it plays with infinity. But do you know Why Maths And Literature Make A Winning Formula?

When I opened my bookshop, Libreria, I based it on the short story’s core theme and covered the interior with mirrors to give the impression that you are in a “perhaps infinite” area. (The mirrors need to be cleaned several times, but whatever.)

According to math professor Sarah Hart, her exuberant debut book is about how her academic specialty has benefited the writings of poets and novelists. She argues, “We immensely enrich both professions by seeing mathematics and literature as complementary components of the same effort to understand human life and our role in the cosmos.

Maths And Literature Make A Winning Formula

She is correct. Readers may recognize some of Hart’s examples, such as how Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, winner of the Booker Prize, is structured around numerology or how math puzzles are scattered throughout Alice in Wonderland (written by a math professor).

Most, though, were unfamiliar to me. Although I’ve read Moby-Dick, I completely missed the references to the cycloids, a class of mathematical curves. Hart does an excellent job of demonstrating how Melville’s epic work “abounds with ideas that a mathematically attuned eye can detect and explore” (which perhaps explains why I missed them) and how these might “add an extra dimension to our appreciation”.

A similar thing happened in Middlemarch; I failed to notice that the way Mr Brooke is mocked includes a smart mathematical expression: “We all know the wag’s definition of a philanthropist: a man whose charity increases directly as the square of the distance.”

The mathematical universe is a rich source of metaphors, as Hart accurately notes, and “once you are on the lookout, you’ll see [maths] everywhere.”

Unbelievably, a 1961 compact collection by French author Raymond Queneau features one hundred trillion poems.

Hart makes a broader point about how “the perceived boundary” between math and other creative disciplines “is a very recent idea” and that “for most of history, mathematics was part of every educated person’s cultural awareness” using Melville and Eliot. Because of this, these authors felt at ease employing mathematical concepts and were aware that their audience shared this comfort level.

The book’s analysis of obscure works, including a little collection by French author Raymond Queneau that was released in 1961 and miraculously contains a hundred trillion poems, maybe its most fascinating section. Queneau crammed in that many by printing ten sonnets, each of which could be paired with any of the other nine lines to produce an absurdly huge number of alternative poems.

It poses some intriguing philosophical concerns, as Hart says, such as whether we can conclude that Queneau authored all of these prospective sonnets or even whether the various poems truly exist in the first place. Hart’s assertion that poetry is “just the continuation of mathematics by other means” is audacious, but it makes sense.

The book could have been more flawless, similar to a disorganized mathematical theorem; it could have benefited from being simplified, made shorter, and more elegant. You can’t help but be won over by Hart’s lighthearted energy, and she has Marcus du Sautoy or Richard Dawkins’ uncommon talent for employing clever cultural allusions to explain complex scientific concepts.

Once Upon a Prime is a joyful reminder of how much human creativity comes from connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated fields at a time when the British educational system is becoming suffocatingly narrow, with arts and music being dropped by schools and our universities falling behind America in encouraging multidisciplinary studies.

Hart inspires us to read more and explore the world by bringing to life what she calls “the enduring conversation between literature and mathematics” and highlighting how both scientists and fiction lovers are tackling mathematical puzzles. I wonder if taking her advice will make you happier in the long run. One thing is for certain, though, as Hart herself cautions: “You’re going to need a bigger bookcase.”

 Mudlark is the publisher of Sarah Hart’s Once Upon a Prime ($16.99). Purchase your copy at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Delivery fees might apply.

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