Can you recommend books like Flatland which mix fiction and math and/or explain the mathematical concepts to laymen?
January 3, 2005 8:11 PM   Subscribe

I read Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland this weekend and really enjoyed its fiction and speculative geometry/mathematics. I guess the logical next step would be to read the unofficial sequel, Flatterland, but can any of you recommend other books that similarly twist math and fiction, or just books that explain mathematical concepts or theories to laymen such as myself in ways that are entertaining to read?
posted by Evstar to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My answer, which isn't exactly the same kind of reading, is the books of Douglas Hofstadter. He wrote, notably, Godel Escher Bach, and Metamagical Themas. The former is a long series of intermixed fiction segments with math explanations, and the latter is a collection of columns from (I think) Scientific American. I heart his books- I should maybe re-read them.
posted by thethirdman at 8:18 PM on January 3, 2005

While I can't suggest any other titles, I can really recommend The Annotated Flatland, with annotations by the same guy who wrote Flatterland. It brings a lot of insight into the original book; not just the geometry but the politics and thoughts of the time in which it was written.
posted by zsazsa at 8:19 PM on January 3, 2005

I loved Clifford Pickover's The Loom of God. It ties mathematical history to a fiction story about time travel and mysticism. He's written a lot of other good math-ish books, but this is probably my favorite. (In case the name sounds familiar, he also used to write the brain-boggler column for Discover magazine.)
posted by whatzit at 8:25 PM on January 3, 2005

Just finished "Hyperspace" by Michio Kaku (Amazon here.) A great read, requires very little advanced math/theoretical physics knowledge, though some linear algebra might be good. More theory than pure fiction, but mentions Flatland and other texts, so it might be worth perusing the bibliography for more of what you're looking for, if this book isn't it.
posted by aberrant at 8:33 PM on January 3, 2005

Some of Rudy Rucker's short stories deal with human beings encountering 4-dimensional geometrical spaces in a way that seems to be directly inspired by Flatland. One of the stories is a semi-sequel to the book itself.
posted by Chris Freiberg at 8:33 PM on January 3, 2005

A Tour of the Calculus by (David?) Berlinski is a great narrative introduction to lots of mathematical concepts.
posted by rustcellar at 8:38 PM on January 3, 2005

Second the Rudy Rucker book! It's called "Spaceland", and is a great read, as is almost all of Rucker's stuff.

My favorites are the bopper books, the best of which is "Wetware".

Rucker is da man.

I think there's an official sequel, by Abbott himself. I'll check it out...
posted by Aquaman at 8:45 PM on January 3, 2005

Ah, the sequel I vaguely remembered was, in fact, this:

Sphereland, by one Dionys Berger, 1965.

As I recall (poorly, obviously), this is very much in the style of the original.
posted by Aquaman at 8:49 PM on January 3, 2005

Einstein's Dreams.
posted by bingo at 8:52 PM on January 3, 2005

A.K. Dewdney's The Planiverse: Computer Contact With a Two-Dimensional World probably fits the bill, and I enjoyed it enormously.
posted by Gamecat at 8:55 PM on January 3, 2005

Sort of related, is the incredibly designed Vas

Dubbed an "opera in flatland", more of a visual pleasure if anything, but very interesting to read, and better understood if you have a grasp on Flatland.
posted by LongDrive at 9:06 PM on January 3, 2005

If you want a true headfuck novel (at least, it was for me), try Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star, a difficult and very wonderful novel about mathematics.

That link is from a page called MathFiction, which I just discovered in looking for a link to Ratner's Star, and which looks like it might be of interest to you.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:15 PM on January 3, 2005

Ill second Planiverse.
posted by BadSeamus at 9:28 PM on January 3, 2005

I'll third Planiverse.
posted by togdon at 10:07 PM on January 3, 2005

Yeah, ok, I'll fourth Planiverse.
posted by bshort at 10:24 PM on January 3, 2005

I'll fifth Planiverse. Of all the Flatland wannabe books out there, Dewdney nails it right down.
posted by majcher at 11:28 PM on January 3, 2005

One Two Three...Infinity by George Gamow. Not a fiction based book like Flatland, but he has a wonder conversationalist style that really gave me a love of mathematics at an early age. It's highly readable and not very technical, although it explains a lot of more advanced concepts in math.
posted by hindmost at 12:00 AM on January 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

Knuth (yes, that Knuth) wrote a book called Surreal Numbers about a young couple who get stranded on a desert island and discover some stone tablets with symbols carved on them from which they derive Conway's set-based number system.

Written in novel form (OK, novella) but without an actual plot or significant characterization. Nevertheless, it really captures the thrill of discovery as the couple works out each new bit of Conway's system.

Short. Readable. Engaging. One of my favorite books about math, though I've never had any use for surreal numbers in real life.

Also, second thethirdman's vote for Godel, Escher, Bach. Brilliant, wide-ranging book covering AI, philosophy, music, art, zen, genetics, programming, computability and turing machines, godel's theorem, and more.
posted by zanni at 12:25 AM on January 4, 2005

I really enjoyed Sue Woolfe's Leaning Towards Infinity.
posted by hot soup girl at 2:00 AM on January 4, 2005

Mathenauts compiled by Rudy Rucker is an interesting collection of short mathematical(ish) stories.

You could try getting it via BookCrossing I guess.
posted by ModestyBCatt at 3:29 AM on January 4, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks a lot for the suggestions, guys. I'll definitely be searching some of these out.
posted by Evstar at 4:29 AM on January 4, 2005

Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland is about a man who can personally explore the effects of relativity. It's a fun way to learn Einstein.

I also recommend any of Raymond Smulyan's logic-puzzle books, which include a lot of stories.
posted by grumblebee at 4:53 AM on January 4, 2005

Second or third or however many for Godel, Escher, Bach and Surreal Numbers.

And maybe Martin Gardener's The Armchair Universe; not much on the fiction but really intriguing topics, and designed around computer experimentation.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:13 AM on January 4, 2005

You would probably enjoy Stanislaw Lem:
"His Master's Voice" is about a mathematician, and a lot of very cool made-up theorems are discussed. It might not be so enjoyable if you don't already know a little math (but a quick trip to google or wikipedia will tell you enough.)
"The Cyberiad" has a lot of funny science jokes.
"The Investigation" is good, but you won't follow the mathematical "thrust" of it until the end.

I bet you'd like Borges, too.
posted by sonofsamiam at 7:16 AM on January 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

More big-ups for G.E.B. I try to read it every couple of years, and everytime I do, it blows my mind in a completely different way than the time before.
posted by Capn at 8:15 AM on January 4, 2005

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino.
posted by initapplette at 11:58 AM on January 4, 2005

G.E.B. is great, but don't take everything in it as fact, particularly the stuff about Zen Buddhism, which is often wrong or made-up. For example, there is no such thing as "the art of Zen strings" -- which is obvious if you are clued in to the fact that it's a put-on by the genetic pun in that particular dialog, but I didn't catch it the first couple times through -- and "mu" does not really "unask the question" in Japanese (this sense was introduced in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I believe, and is not really derived from Zen).

The book becomes fun in a different way after you know something about the subjects it discusses.
posted by kindall at 5:15 PM on January 4, 2005

In case anyone is still reading this thread, Alex Kasman of the College of Charleston keeps a list of mathematical fiction (with reader reviews) here.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:12 AM on January 10, 2005

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