Mathematics in fiction


Join LibraryThing to post.

Mathematics in fiction

Edited: Aug 3, 2007, 2:33pm

I'm an educational studies major at Swarthmore college, and I'm looking for works of fiction that deal heavily in mathematics or mathematicians. My interest lies in the ways that mathematics (as a discipline, practice, skill, talent, study, or anything) is represented or described in literature. Children's fiction is much preferred, but I suppose I'll take any suggestions.

Books I'm already aware of (and good examples of what I'm looking for): Math Curse, Cool Math, The Math Wiz, Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School.

Thanks, Mathematics group!

Edit: I've been thinking more about this project of mine, and for people who come drifting to this thread in the months ahead, I want to open my inquiry to creative children's or young adult NON-fiction about mathematics, excluding textbooks. Children's and young adult only, please. As someone going into elementary education, a book like Chaos : making a new science or A Brief History of Time are a little outside my interest! ;)

Jul 31, 2007, 6:59pm

Edited: Jul 31, 2007, 7:50pm

The only children's book that I can think of is The Number Devil (the touchstone is being very uncooperative). You might also want to check the tagmash page for fiction and mathematics.

Jul 31, 2007, 9:45pm

I can't believe that nobody has mentioned Flatland yet.
It sounds like a very interesting project - keep us posted!

Jul 31, 2007, 9:50pm

Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi by Cindy Newschwander is a good children's book. She also has other math related books.

Jul 31, 2007, 10:29pm

From the tagmash mathematics, fiction. There's quite a few books on the list aimed at children.,mathematics

Jul 31, 2007, 10:45pm

Oh, and try the tagmash for children's, mathematics. Two of the top five are on your list of good examples.

Aug 1, 2007, 12:32am

Thanks for the comments, folks. I'm beginning to appreciate the power of tagmash, and some of these suggestions sound fantastic. Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi and The Number Devil sound especially interesting.

For those of you who want to know more about the project... In the fall I'm going to be taking a course called Literacies and Social Identities, an education course. Last spring I had an independent study exploring elementary math education with the same professor. As a bridge between the work of each, she encouraged me to explore different representations of numeracy (rather than more broadly literacy) in various forms, and at some point I'll write a paper on it.

Again, thanks for the pointers!

Aug 1, 2007, 4:32am

Cindy Newschwander has a couple of other books that go along with the one mentioned above that she wrote with Wayne Geehan. This sounds like interesting research! Have fun!

Aug 24, 2007, 6:39am

I don't know how useful this is, but there is a fiction book called Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture.

Edited: Aug 24, 2007, 3:56pm

I think Prezzey's read that.

Edit: At least, I think that was the library I saw that in.

Sep 12, 2007, 2:15pm

The books cited above sound great. Here's a few more about topics that might interest kids (no stories about counting or pairing shoes ... zzzz):


A Remainder of One by Elinor Pinczes
The littlest bug in a squadron of twenty-five consistently gets left out as the troop forms two rows of twelve, three rows of eight, and four rows of six. With five rows of five, however, he is finally included. Rhyming text and anthropomorphic bugs.


The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins
Ma made a dozen cookies for Victoria and Sam to share, but before they start, the doorbell rings and a couple friends come in. Portions diminish with each new set of friends at the door until it’s down to one cookie per person. Then the doorbell rings again, but this time Grandma enters with a whole new tray of cookies. You could act it out if you bring in some cookies.

The Lunch Line by Karen Nagel
When Kim forgets her lunch on the bus, she must figure out how to best spend her one dollar in the cafeteria line.

“While Kim looked at the menu, Jeff cut in front of her. ‘I’ll have the meat surprise, the potato surprise, the fruit surprise, and the ice cream surprise,’ Jeff said. Jess paid $4. He didn’t get any change. ’Hmm, maybe I should buy the meat surprise,’ Kim said. She looked at Jeff’s plate. Maybe pizza would be better.”

Money concepts and addition. Lunch lines are scary for some little kids and this might help.

Spaghetti and Meatballs for All by Marilyn Burns
Friendly folks gathering together to share a meal. Tables are added to make a place for everyone. Can be used on different cognitive levels – counting, adding, subtracting, multiplication, division, as well as figuring out area and perimeter.


Who Wants One? by Mary Serfozo
A sister, dressed as a magician, conjures up ten different sets of imaginative things, one after the other, but her little brother only wants one. Readers see why, in the end, as one very real puppy emerges from the magician’s box. The watercolors combined with the artist’s talent for showing funny details and perspective expands the text.

How Much Is That Guinea Pig in the Window? by Joanne Rocklin
The students in Mr. Day’s class figure out how many cans and bottles they must collect to earn enough money to buy a class pet. Intro to adding and subtracting decimals.

Sep 12, 2007, 6:03pm

The Young Adult fiction novel "An Abundance of Katherines" is about a teenage prodigy who tries to develop a working mathematical theorem that will predict how long romantic relationships will last.
There are many graphs and equations that are included in the text and there is even an appendix at the end written by a University of Chicago mathematician.
Plus, its a great story :)

Sep 17, 2007, 6:12pm

Well, I'm not sure what the elements in the intersection are, but I know that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician AND the author of children's books. I vaguely recall that he put together some very silly examples of syllogisms, and there's certainly a mathematical "interpretation" of ''Twas brillig.'
So I'd look there, somewhere, for something to meet the challenge.

Sep 23, 2007, 6:37pm

Meg Murry is the heroine from Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' series, and she's really into Maths and Physics. A Wrinkle in time has more Physics than Maths in, content-wise, though.

Sep 24, 2007, 11:16pm

You just brought to mind the Encyclopedia Brown stories. As i recall, the solution to about a third of the stories rests in observation and elementary math.

Oct 12, 2007, 11:26am

There's a tv series calles "Numb3rs" that's about a pair of brothers, one is a crime investigator and the other is a mathematical prodigy. The latter helps the first to solve crimes through applied mathematics. It claims to be "inspired by actual cases and experiences".;titl...

Oct 12, 2007, 3:20pm

The mathematicians who advise on the show wrote a book called the Numb3rs Behind Numb3rs.

The link from Amazon.

Jun 6, 2008, 9:09pm

I don't know if you are still working on this project, but you might consider narrowing your topic. Check out for an extensive list of what you are looking for.

Aug 9, 2008, 5:20am

An adult/young adult book is by Apostolos Doxiadis, Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture. The Comjecture is number theory that all even numbers greater than 4 can be expressed as the sum of 2 prime numbers. Euler in about 1750 actually came up with the Conjecture but Goldbach gets the credit.

The book is realistic and by someone who has a MA and BA in math. It shows the joy and sorrow of being a research mathemetician(sp?). The Uncle tries to find the proof for the Conjecture and thereby inspires his nephew to study math.

Edited: Sep 22, 2008, 9:43pm

The last fiction book I read that had a mathematician as its protagonist was The Wild Numbers. That was in 2004 or even earlier so my recollection of the details maybe hazy.

It was definitely a compelling read - I read it from start to finish while standing in a bookstore. As someone who studied pure maths and uses maths daily for research, what drew me in was how "right" the characterisation of mathematicians and mathematics felt in the novel compared to most representations out there. Sure, it's a romanticised view of the field - it's a melodramatic novel - but, unlike, say, The French Mathematician, I really felt like the author knew his stuff.

I can't remember if it would be suitable for younger readers or not. The fact that I can't remember much of the plot either suggests that there was nothing too amazing about the story.

Interestingly, David Foster Wallace reviewed The Wild Numbers and Uncle Petros, both unfavourably. I can't find a full text of his reviews but there is a summary at the AMS website. Although it's not fiction, Wallace's book on infinity Everything and More is a great read with an amazing amount of well researched maths history.

Dec 29, 2008, 3:11pm

How about Martin Gardner, he has tons of books and articles... and quite addictive.
And yes, Flatland and the several other books inspired by Flatland.

Dec 29, 2008, 3:18pm

Jan 24, 2009, 1:06am

Have you looked at Parrot's Theorem?

Sep 17, 2009, 7:45pm

there's a book of math based science fantasy short stories called "Fantasia Mathematica" out there. I passed up a chance to grab it at a used book store about two years ago and I've been kicking myself since. Check it out on my wishlist.

Sep 25, 2009, 6:12am

#26, Tell me more about what you know about the book, It is availible on Amazon, Should I buy it?

Sep 25, 2009, 7:25am

Sorry, I had to add a question, which I hope is germane to this thread:

A mathematician makes a pact with the DEVIL re.
solving Fermats Last Theorem etc. etc.

I know this is a classic and I own it. Somewhere?

I should imagine KIDS would love it. I did at 15.


Sep 25, 2009, 1:37pm

I'm not sure if the book is available on Amazon. I would try Alibris or another used book seller as I'm sure it's out of print (1960s or 70s book I think). I know it features stories by Martin Gardner and Robert A. Heinlein among others.

Sep 25, 2009, 3:18pm

dear pahoota,
Is this the book you are thinking of?

Sep 25, 2009, 11:28pm

That's it, thank you!

Looks like maybe there is a new (or newer edition). As far as should you buy it? I don't know. It's on my wishlist so I haven't read it myself. If you like fantasy or science fiction and mathematics, it's probably worth at least searching for in the library.

Sep 26, 2009, 2:22am

Any Mathematics intersected with SF
type book is on my "must look at" list.

Jan 19, 2010, 4:24pm


The story you are trying to remember is "The Devil and Simon Flagg", by Arthur Porges. It is collected in Fantasia Mathematica, which is an excellent book to have.

I don't know of many SF & Mathematics books, but there have been several short stories published in SF magazines over the years that are quite good.

Jan 23, 2010, 9:31am

The Phantom Tollbooth is an amazing one!

Edited: Oct 6, 2010, 2:58pm

Larry Niven's short story "Convergent Series."

It can be found in the anthology of the same name.

Jan 17, 2011, 7:15pm

Martin Gardner wrote "The Annotated Alice"
Great insights!

Jan 17, 2011, 7:19pm

There is also "Crimes and Mathdemeanors" by Hathout (a high school student)

Jan 18, 2011, 3:14am

The Gnome and the Pearl of Wisdom: A Fable by Richard Willmott

Jan 18, 2011, 3:19am

Arthur C. Clarke: "The Last Theorem"

Not a very good book, though. But it describes the life of a young mathematician who wants to find a simpler proof for Fermat's famous theorem.

Jan 18, 2011, 1:50pm

(1) Ted Chiang’s story collection Stories of Your Life and Others contains two stories that are very good stories and have explicitly mathematical aspects. From my review:

“Division by Zero.” Amazing idea about a mathematician and her husband struggling as she discovers an extreme example of Godel’s Theorem. This story works mathematics and emotion into one seamless whole. The ending makes you gasp with its intelligence and emotional impact.

“Story of Your Life.” Also amazing, works physics (including the idea of a variational problem!) and emotion into one seamless whole. Once again, the ending is high-impact.

(2) Jorge Louis Borges’s short fiction “The Library of Babel” which is featured in a couple of his collections, has as its basis the idea of permutations (or is it combinations?). One collection is here; another is here.

There’s also a book on the story, The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’s Library of Babel.

May 18, 2011, 10:20pm

Ooh, all these suggestions are fantastic, and I can't wait to check them out.

Sadly, I have very little in the way of math-related children's/YA lit to suggest, but perhaps someone will be interested in adult fiction as well?

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is biographical fiction for young readers. It's about a very brave, intelligent man who was self-taught and grew up to be a sailor and a mathematician.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel that is probably suitable for tweens and teens, although it might be a bit slow for them. It's a languid, elegantly written novel about a single mother who works as a housekeeper, and the sweet relationship she and her son form with an elderly man with amnesia who used to be a prominent mathematician.

Proof is a beautiful, smart play about family and mental illness, with math as a background. The way math is worked in as a motif as well as a plot device is really well-done. I believe the author won a Pulitzer for it. It does have some sex, so probably not suitable for kids.

May 18, 2011, 10:26pm

The Borges' story is actually mathematically incorrect, if I recall correctly.

Mr. Bowditch was one of my favorite books growing up. And Proof, if it's the same that was made into a movie a few years back was just more than a bit too A Beautiful Mind lite.

May 19, 2011, 2:51am

For comic relief, there's always The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.
The answer to Live, the Universe and Everything.
The mathematics behind the Improbability Drive.
A great lesson in having too much perspective.

Think about it now; thank me later.

Edited: May 19, 2011, 8:32am

The Borges' story is actually mathematically incorrect, if I recall correctly.

You might be referring to this passage, which I use here on LT for my library description:

The Library is limitless and periodic. If an eternal voyager were to traverse it in any direction, he would find, after many centuries, that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder (which, repeated, would constitute an order: Order itself).

Within the context of the story, the narrator has no justification for this assertion; he's just speculating that the Library is infiite. It's kind of more mind-blowing if it's finite. Like the real universe, we probably can't imagine it either way. One wants to ask, "If there's a wall, what's beyond it?" even though one knows intellectually that the question is not well posed. (It could be closed but finite like the surface of a sphere.)

The thing I love about the idea of the Library is the idea that every book you can imagine is there somewhere. The true story of your life (including the future) as well as practically innumerable false stories, the best possible work of fiction from your point of view, the true nature of the Library (as well as innumerable false descriptions), the most lucid possible description of the true physics of the universe, etc. And though each book is only 400 pages long, you can get books of any length by simply combining two or more books.

May 19, 2011, 3:13pm

No. If I recall correctly, the library itself can not exist as it's stated in the story. Something about structural impossibility. His math is incorrect.

May 19, 2011, 4:21pm

Oh, I thought you were talking about the combinatorics.

Aug 29, 2012, 11:30am

Dear labbit440,

May I humbly suggest my new mathematical thriller, Proof of Death by Chris Pearson, available from Amazon:

I hope you enjoy it.

Aug 29, 2012, 11:58am

Math Girls by Hiroshi Yuki was recently translated into English and has been very well received.

Edited: Aug 30, 2012, 6:45am

Dear Chris #47,
You are right on the verge of being "flagged" as a spammer.
If only 'cos this a "maths" group (and we usually don't get
that many spammers) I will just suggest you look up the guidelines on the acceptible ways for authors to "promote" their works.


ETA. You must realize what you look like, 1 book in your library, joined yesterday and immediatly want to push your book. I hope I am not wrong. *sigh*

Nov 23, 2012, 7:09am

Whilst not children's literature, the work of Guillermo Martinez might be of interest. There is a film adaptation of his "Oxford Murders" that is in the so-bad-it's-good category.

Jan 5, 2019, 11:41pm

>2 booksinbed:

The kasman site devoted to mathematical fiction has been re-located to

Feb 14, 2019, 3:32pm

I would check out The Math Kids series, which follows a group of elementary school kids who form a math club. The intent is to solve puzzles, but they soon find themselves tackling a mysterious string of burglaries that have the police baffled. At the same time, they are forced to deal with the classroom bullies, who are always picking on the "math nerds". Can the Math Kids use their math skills to solve more than just math puzzles?

The first book, The Prime-Time Burglars, is available now with the second, A Sequence of Events, coming out in May and the third, An Unusual Pattern, coming out in October. Each book focuses on a particular math topic (prime numbers, Fibonacci sequence, Pi, etc.) but also introduces other math concepts in a way kids can understand. An appendix at the end of each book dives into the math in a more detail.

There are lots of opportunities for the reader to solve the puzzles before the Math Kids do, so they are also very interactive.

Feb 14, 2019, 4:18pm

dcole02 (#52):

This is the rare case where it would be appropriate for an author to bring up their own works in a thread - it's clearly relevant, after all.

It is NEVER okay to be deceptive when you do so, however, and to pretend you're not the author, or fail to disclose that you're the author. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

Feb 14, 2019, 4:25pm

>53 lorax:

I wondered about it, and confirmed the LTer was the author after searching for the books here on LT. The lapse unfortunately undermines the post (and the books), because they are clearly relevant and it's a promising series.

dcole02, why not simply be upfront about the fact you're the author? Always a good approach when you're selling something, whether on LT or elsewhere! It builds goodwill even when it's obvious, and it's a safe bet to assume it's not always obvious to everyone.

Feb 15, 2019, 4:32am

Actually I published an ebook of (very) short mathematical SF stories, but it is written in Italian :-)

Edited: Feb 18, 2019, 5:18pm

>29 pahoota:, >30 guido47: Fadiman also published a sequel to Fantasia Mathematica called The Mathematical Magpie.

Edited to add: Oops. I've just realized the posts I'm responding to are roughly the same age as the average glacier.

Nov 11, 2019, 12:59am

When I was in middle school I really enjoyed Douglas Downing's books: Trigonometry the Easy Way and Calculus the Easy Way. He also wrote Algebra the Easy Way.
These are all presented as fantasy narratives where the characters discover mathematics in order to resolve conflicts in the kingdom.

Oct 7, 2020, 12:32pm

Mostly just posting *something* to this group to avoid it being irretrievably shuttered, but I didn't see the "math fiction" tag mentioned yet:

Oct 7, 2020, 1:17pm

>58 lorax: I'm glad you did as I had no idea this thread or group existed and have enjoyed looking-up some of the books mentioned. As a math-loving child my math-realted favourites were Fermat's last theorem (non fiction), which I read to pieces, and The number devil, although I was didn't like the fact that the protagonist in it did not like math. I have long been annoyed by children's authors who mak their protagonists hate math, sure there should be room for math-haters in fiction but why so many of them?

I can add Tusen kulor which is a YA story where statistics play a major role but it has no English translation (and might not deserve one, the author have written much better books).

Dec 4, 2020, 11:40am

Might or might not be "children's fiction", depending on the child:

- Christopher Priest's Inverted World is built on a mathematical conceit (which I think is better experienced in the novel than in my summary) and delivers a good ripping adventure story on top of the resulting weird world.
- Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief is a fun science fiction yarn based on some contemporary notions from cryptography