Math metaphors in literature

From Ben Orlin at Math with Bad Drawings:

Good writing, they say, is vivid and sensory. It involves punchy verbs, concrete nouns, and long descriptions of rain.

Mathematics is not sensory. It is not concrete. And it is not much good for describing rain.

Instead, math is a library of concepts: shelf after shelf of abstract relations between x and y. Mathematical ideas are like pencil drawings of spider webs, airy and ethereal schematics of something that was pretty airy and ethereal to begin with.

And that’s what makes mathematical metaphors so perfect.

Orlin pulls out half a dozen or so examples, all good. Here’s one from Le Guin:

Wow, she is such a great writer. I don’t like all her books, not by a long shot, but that’s at the story level, not at the craft level. She’s splendid with sentences. This is lovely. You should click through and check out the rest, especially if you happen to like math as well as literature.

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2 thoughts on “Math metaphors in literature”

  1. Those are interesting. In the same vein, I just checked an ebook out of the library (haven’t read it yet and don’t remember what called it to my attention) called Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature, by Sarah Hart.

  2. There was a ya book I read a while back that made a cool comparison between translation of a text from one language to another and quantum state collapse. The rest of the book was sort of forgettable but that stuck with me.

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