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Atomic Anna (2022)
Rachel Barenbaum

I loved this plot from the moment I heard about it: A teenage math genius learns through comic books left for her by her mother that her grandmother who invented time travel needs her help solving some equations.

And, indeed, after finally reading the novel, I do still love the plot. But, the way it was done did not quite suit my tastes and so I wish it had been handled differently. Still, I did enjoy it and can recommend it to anyone who thinks the idea of a math prodigy receiving hidden messages from her mother in the form of comic books in which her grandmother is portrayed as a super hero named "Atomic Anna" sounds pretty cool.

In the novel, Anna Berkova is a scientist who played a fundamental role in the Soviet nuclear weapons program at the start of World War II and in designing the Chernobyl power plant. She comes to believe that gravity waves created by nuclear reactions can be utilized for time travel. (Essentially, one "catches the wave" and uses it to travel to any point in spacetime.) She considered this only theoretical, until the meltdown at Chernobyl hits the experimental device she was holding and unexpectedly sends her into the future where she meets her daughter, who is dying of a gunshot wound. Of course, Anna wants to use the time machine now to save her daughter. Her daughter urges her to use the time machine to save her own daughter, Anna's granddaughter, Raisa. Moreover, Anna also feels an obligation to use the invention to prevent the many deaths caused by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Unfortunately, she is not able to do all of those things since she gets sicker with each time "jump".

Perhaps I should mention at this point that none of these three generations of women really knows each other. Anna sent her daughter to America with friends when she was an infant, and Raisa was raised by those same friends after her mother was sent to prison. Raisa receives comic books called "Atomic Anna" which she knows are drawn by her mother, Molly, but does not realize that the story about superheroes sharing their names are actually about her, her mother, and her grandmother. Raisa also meets her grandmother a couple of times, but does not recognize her for who she is -- at least not at first. But, her grandmother recognizes her genius even when she is a little girl and begins adding clues, equations, and requests for help to the comic books that are left for her.

The book certainly describes Raisa as a mathematical genius, and shows her winning math competitions. But, it confuses math and physics. For example, when her boyfriend asks her to explain why mathematical proof is so important, Raisa uses Einstein's "disproof" of Newtonian physics as an example. However, this is not correct. There is nothing mathematically or logically wrong with Newton's description of physics in terms of calculus in Euclidean space. It is a perfectly consistent mathematical construction and cannot be mathematically disproved. The only problem with it is that it doesn't describe the universe we live in. It does not accurately predict the outcomes of experiments we can do or the measurements we can make. So, it is physically wrong, but not mathematically wrong. Aside from failing to distinguish between math and physics, the author also gets the physics wrong. Raisa's big discovery is supposed to be succeeding where Einstein failed, in combining gravity with the theory of electromagnetic waves. Except, that's not right. Einstein had no trouble with those two things. In fact, electromagnetic waves were the inspiration for relativity, and as Kaluza-Klein theory shows, relativity actually has Maxwell's equations "baked" right into it. One of the first "tests" of general relativity was its extremely accurate prediction about how light waves would be affected by gravity, which was verified through astronomical observations. So, contrary to what the book suggests, Einstein had no problem with gravity and electromagnetism. (The famous difficulty is in combining gravity with quantum physics, which is different and not really addressed here.)

Here are a few mathematical highlights:

  • Anna's daughter, who considers herself American, has this exchange with her Russian step-father:

    (quoted from Atomic Anna)

    "I hate math. Americans hate math. Only Soviets think numbers are worth anything."

    "That's what foolish Americans say. Yuri Gregarin. How do you think he traveled to space? Math and science. And hard work. It's rewarded in this country..."

  • Later, there is this discussion of why he urged her not to be an artist:

    (quoted from Atomic Anna)

    "You hated me drawing," Molly said.

    "I.. It scared me." Papa's voice was quiet. She knew he was work- ing to keep it controlled, to keep away from the subject of Viktor. "Numbers, formulas, I understand. If you're an artist, all those critics can tell you you're a genius and list the reasons why, but they can use those same reasons to call you a fool. Idiocy or brilliance determined by a whim. I don't want that for you'

    "That's it?" she asked. She closed her eyes, still felt the pull of the drugs and alcohol and used all her strength to push it away, to concentrate on the conversation. "All this time, you didn't want me to be an artist because you were afraid of what people would say? You thought I couldn't take rejection?"

    "I grew up in the shadow of chance. Who gets a bullet today, and who gets bread. We never knew what anyone was thinking." Papa's voice was almost a whisper. "I thought it would be different in America, and it is in some ways, but in others it's exactly the same."

    Molly felt ashamed that she had never considered that Papa's objections to her choices could stem from anything more than disap- pointment. She had never realized he was trying to protect her. "Papa, America's not the Soviet Union. And math's no difterent than art. A proot only holds if people agree on your logic."

    (BTW I disagree with the last remark. It is not completely untrue. There is certainly some subjectivity and aesthetics in math as well, but it is far closer to objectivity than art!)

  • When Raisa is a little girl her mother (a drug addict) tries to discourage her from going into math by saying "It's a waste. You have other talents." To which Raisa replies simply "Maybe I like math?"
  • In contrast, her "grandparents" (the friends of Anna who raised her mother and then raised her) tell Raisa how proud they are when she participates in math competitions. Raisa realizes that she has avoided talking about her love of math so as not to take sides in this disagreement.
  • Raisa builds a radio telescope to collect data about gravity waves, which eventually brings her to the attention of an (African-American) astrophysicist, Professor Stocken. Stocken challenges her with a combinatorics problem: to find the number of 'homomorphically [sic] irreducible trees" with n=10 nodes. (BTW This is the same question which Will answered in the movie Good Will Hunting. See here for more information about the problem.) She answers after only four days, which impresses him. However, she is not really able to explain her answer to him. She seems to have been able to find it through intuition rather than logical reasoning.
  • Professor Stocken takes Raisa and another student into a room in his department labeled "Maui" on the door which has a sand floor, because Maui is his "favorite place on Earth" to let his mind runs free. He urges them to use this room for thinking of the ideas behind the math.
Although not directly related to the math, it may interest some people reading this review to know that Judaism is also a main theme of the novel. Nearly all of the main characters are Jewish and the reader gets some exposure to what it was like to be Jewish in the USSR (and briefly also in Nazi Germany.)

In summary, this is an ambitious and entertaining book which largely succeeds, but would have worked better for me had the author known more about math and physics.

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Atomic Anna
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Bones of Time by Kathleen Ann Goonan
  2. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  3. Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan
  4. Singer Distance by Ethan Chatagnier
  5. The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal
  6. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  7. Gentzen oder: Betrunken aufräumen [Gentzen or Cleaning Up Drunk] by Dietmar Dath
  8. Arcadia by Iain Pears
  9. The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming
  10. The Difference Engine by William Gibson / Bruce Sterling
Ratings for Atomic Anna:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Science Fiction,
MotifProdigies, Female Mathematicians, Time Travel,
TopicMathematical Physics,

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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)