MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The MANIAC (2023)
Benjamin Labatut
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The life of John von Neumann is the main focus of this book which (like the author's other work in this database) could easily be mistaken for a non-fictional history book. The middle portion of the book consists of recollections about von Neumann by famous scientists, mathematicians, and family members. Sections of the book are told from the perspective of Eugene Wigner, George Polya, Richard Feynman, Oskar Morgenstern, and other collaborators as well as some that are supposed to have been written by von Neumann's wives, brother, mother, and daughter.

The MANIAC does a very good job of giving the reader the feeling that they have gotten to personally know both von Neumann and the people who are supposedly writing about him. It all feels very real and personal. Some discussion of math, science, and engineering takes place in the book. It, of course, addresses von Neumann's role in building the first atomic bomb, his applications of game theory to military strategy, and some of his early work in mathematical logic. But, none of these is discussed in great detail. It is the human side of the story -- the motivations, insecurities, personality traits, and interpersonal relationships -- which are the "main event" here. (Moreover, as many of the people happen to be Jewish, religion and a Yiddishe sensibility are also infused throughout.)

Presumably, many of the details portrayed are purely creations of the authors imagination. This and the fact that the words are actually Labatut's and cannot really be attributed to the people who are supposedly saying them, is what qualifies this as a work of fiction. However, quite a lot of the information provided consists of verifiable facts, and it is difficult if not impossible for the reader to tell which things are "embellishments" added by the author. Personally, I wish it were easier to differentiate fact from fiction in a book like this.

Whether some of the details are true does not matter. For instance, I do not care whether Albert Einstein's really called Paul Ehrenfest's son "patient little crawlikins". It is an interesting factlet if true, and a cute bit of creative writing if not.

But, this book also indulges in the sorts of exaggerations and mythologizing that often occur when people talk about "geniuses" like John von Neumann. This book feels so real, and it takes a concerted effort on my part to maintain a certain skepticism about how accurately he has been portrayed here.

I worry that this book will reinforce in readers a harmful stereotype linking mathematical talent with mental disorders. The title, of course, is a reference to the digital computer that von Neumann helped to build at the IAS. In that sense, it is just an acronym, But, the reader also cannot help but think of the English meaning of this word. Indeed, the author seems to emphasize the extent to which the scientists and mathematicians one "meets" in this book are quirky and prone to depression.

The MANIAC is divided into three parts. The first part, written in third person, concerns the physicist Paul Ehrenfest who committed suicide shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power. The middle portion, as stated above, consists of (fictional) first person accounts all related to John von Neumann. And the last part -- justified by von Neumann's own interest in self-replicating machines and artificial intelligence -- is a largely factual description of AlphaGo, the AI program which defeated a human Go champion. This third part of the "triptych" seemed like a missed opportunity to me. Since the book quotes von Neumann as saying that a computer program would "have to understand language, to read, to write, to speak" in order to be considered AI, a final chapter involving the new breed of generative AI programs utilizing Large Language Models (LLMs) would have been more timely and perhaps more interesting as well.

More information about this work can be found at www.amazon.com.
(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 The MANIAC
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
  2. Trajectory by Cambria Gordon
  3. Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan
  4. The Adventures of a Mathematician by Thor Klein
  5. Hidden Figures by Allison Schroeder (writer) / Theodore Melfi (director and writer)
  6. When We Cease to Understand the World [Un Verdor Terrible] by Benjamin Labatut
  7. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
  8. Continuums by Robert Carr
  9. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  10. The Goddess of Small Victories [La déesse des petites victoire] by Yannick Grannec
Ratings for The MANIAC:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifGenius, Prodigies, Academia, Real Mathematicians,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Mathematical Physics, Logic/Set Theory,
Medium

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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)