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A Transient Assortment of Math Metaphors in Literature – Math with Dangerous Drawings

This checklist goes towards all the things I’ve been taught about good writing.

Good writing, they are saying, is vivid and sensory. It entails punchy verbs, concrete nouns, and lengthy descriptions of rain.

Arithmetic isn’t sensory. It’s not concrete. And it isn’t a lot good for describing rain.

As a substitute, math is a library of ideas: shelf after shelf of summary relations between x and y. Mathematical concepts are like pencil drawings of spider webs, ethereal and ethereal schematics of one thing that was fairly ethereal and ethereal to start with.

And that’s what makes mathematical metaphors so good.

The essence of novels is context. They present us folks embedded in complete worlds, all the things present in relation to all the things else. Arithmetic provides us exact and evocative language for these relations, certainly, for all relations. For that motive alone, math is a robust supply of metaphors for purveyors (and perpetrators) of high-quality literature.

Right here, then, is a quick assortment of mathematical metaphors I’ve come throughout, together with why I like them.

“A Form of Semantic Geometry”

"We speak a kind of esoteric, family language, a sort of semantic geometry in which the shortest distance between any two points is a fullish circle." -J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

Why I adore it: The narrator is describing his household’s intricate dynamics. Unable to talk plainly, they sofa all the things in mental video games. So after all he couches this sentiment in an mental sport.

“Every part Doubling Again Over Itself”

"We talked all night. Everything felt so intense and coiled and Mobius strip-like, all those drinks and drugs and hormones making everything constantly double back over itself." -Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

Why I adore it: The Mobius strip is the form of mind-blowing, trippy object you may first encounter in school. It makes a becoming picture for a late-night dorm dialog.

“The Revolutions of an Irregular Strong”

"In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could be hardly less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid." -George Eliot, Middlemarch

Why I adore it: Mr. Brooke is so dangerous at understanding ladies that it extends even his selection of analogy; he treats “lady” as a form of computational problem. “Irregular” is an particularly scrumptious selection of time period: as if, to Mr. Brooke, there’s something irregular concerning the workings of ladies, as if their minds are off-center objects, rotating oddly. (Because of my pal James Butler for exhibiting me this one.)

“This Is An Averaging Gun.”

He took [the gun] from his shoulder and held it for me to see. "It's a combination gun. Look, two triggers. This"—he tapped the broad-gauge tube—"a shotgun. It spreads possibilities." He made an extending cone with his hands. "And this?" The other. "This rifle's a long-range single shot."

He showed me how he'd aim with it.

"You can shoot one, the other, or both. The rifle shoots right down the very center of the spread. Like an average. A range and its mean. This is an averaging gun."

-China Mieville, This Census Taker

Why I Love It: This metaphor baffles and frightens me, identical to this guide baffled and frightened me. It’s a great picture for the guide itself: each a scattershot spray and a piece of extremely focused precision, aiming at one thing within the distance I can’t fairly discern.

“Caves Like Nothing She Had Ever Seen”

"The caves were like nothing she had ever seen. There were many of them, hundreds, some tiny, no more than bubbles in the rock, some big as the doors of hangars. They made a lacework of circles interlocking and overlapping in the wall of rock, patterns, traceries. The edges of the entrances were fretted with clusters of lesser circles, silvery stone shining against black shadow, like soap-suds, like foam, like the edges of Mandelbrot figures." -Ursula Le Guin, The Telling

Why I adore it: The outline retains probing and reaching for an extra picture, an extra refinement; what higher place to come back to relaxation than a fractal, which comprises infinite additional layers of probing and refinement? (Although Le Guin mentions the Mandelbrot set, the imagery jogs my memory extra of an Apollonian gasket: circles between circles between circles.)

“If We Can Solely Hold the Pendulum Vertical”

"Indulgence leads to misbehavior, which angers the nanny and prompts her to deliver punishment more severe than is warranted. The nanny then feels regret, and subsequently overcompensates with further indulgence. It is an inverted pendulum, prone to oscillations of ever-increasing magnitude. If we can only keep the pendulum vertical, there is no need for subsequent correction." -Ted Chiang, "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny," Exhalation

Why I adore it: The narrator, overly analytical, thinks of the connection between his son and the nanny as a form of dynamical system that retains falling out of its equilibrium. The system as a substitute swings between overindulgence and severity. The mechanical description belies that his personal chilly aloofness is the actual drawback.

“As Intangible as an Equation”

"Emergencies in space can be as obvious as an explosion or as intangible as an equation, but their obviousness has nothing to do with how dangerous they are." -Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

Why I adore it: This metaphor threatens to cease being a metaphor in any respect, and develop into literal. In any case, area journey is made potential by our work with equations. The impact, I discover, is to blur the road between image and symbolized, between the mathematical mannequin and the world it describes. It paints outer area as a form of summary void, which we traverse like voyagers via Plato’s realm of varieties, navigating round concepts and ideas that may in some way kill us. 

“A self-defining object of 1 floor solely.”

"In itself, a dictionary is like a Mobius strip, a self-defining object of one surface only, collecting and explaining without claiming a narrative third dimension.... It is the readers who... recognize in a dictionary one or several of many books: an anthology, a hierarchical catalogue, a philological thesaurus, a parallel memory, a writing and reading tool. A dictionary is all these things, though not all perhaps at the same time." -Albert Manguel, Packing My Library

Why I Love It: In Manguel’s imaginative and prescient, the dictionary is sort of a mathematical abstraction: a self-sufficient, logically round object, awaiting people to interpret and assign which means to it. Thus, it’s not simply the particular picture of the Mobius strip that sells the passage, however the inherited taste of arithmetic itself.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve acquired for now. To be expanded as others catch my eye!




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