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The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze: A Mathematical Novel (2011)
Alex Kuo

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A story of two number theorists at the opposite ends of the world having similar experiences of strife and disillusionment at times of great turmoil. Ge is a female mathematician teaching in schools in China during the Cultural Revolution. G is her counterpart, a Chinese math professor at a midwestern state university at the time of Civil Rights Movement. Ge, out of her frustration with the control of dissemination of knowledge in Mao's regime and its reign of terror, joins a governmental project at the Three Gorges Dam in an effort to contribute something more meaningful. G leaves academia to join Westinghouse. The novel tracks their parallel evolution, Ge trying to correct or at least convince the maddening, threatening bureaucracy about the completely flawed dam design and G moving toward destroying dams in the US.

The book is billed as a mathematical novel and is replete with formulae both chemical and mathematical, along with references to various number sequences (one instance - “Stolarsky sequence of positive numbers”.) At one point, where Ge cuts off her pigtails and throws them out in subconscious defiance, the passage goes,

(quoted from The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze: A Mathematical Novel)

Then she flings the two braids into the air high above the crowd, and as they sail up end over end, they form the embedded surfaces of a pair of perfect, independent and twirling finite topological helicoids

[followed by a parametric formulation of the surface and its 3-d picture]. Another part which I particularly liked related to her analysis of the design problems with the dam, her sense of responsibility toward the project in an environment where decision-makers were never held responsible for their failures, the consequences in terms of human lives, etc. There is a very nice description of the mathematical issues involved, considerations of scalability of a mathematical solution and even the changing nature of the problem and the solution once you disturb the initial conditions (e.g. does not the presence of dam change the very flow of the waters, the rate of sedimentation, etc which you must consider in the dam's design? How should you evaluate the reliability of observations made on a “normal flow” river used as inputs to mathematical equations when the very nature of that river would get modified by the dam?)

On the other hand, I found the writing style quite distracting and disconcerting. The narrative switches between present and past tenses within same paragraphs and some of the ideas in the descriptive flow seem irrelevant or disconnected. Matter of taste, I suppose.

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GenreHistorical Fiction,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)