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The Catalyst [The Strange Attractor] (1991)
Desmond Cory
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Mathematics professor John Dobie gets caught up in a truly mind-boggling mystery when one of his former students, his wife's best friend, and then his own wife wind up dead, and the police consider him to be a prime suspect.

This is the first, my personal favorite, of the three "Professor Dobie Mysteries" written by British author Desmond Cory. (See also "The Mask of Zeus" and "The Dobie Paradox".) It is also the one that tries to most closely tie Dobie's mathematical abilities to the solution of the mystery...unfortunately, it does so in a rather misguided way.

The mathematics in the story is a confused blend of chaos theory, set theory, probability and mathematical logic. The author either has a very weird idea of these subjects, or attempted to use poetic license to blend them into a nonsensical hodge-podge. For example, when he is trying to solve the mystery, he enters all of the facts he knows into a computer and explains to a friend:

(quoted from The Catalyst [The Strange Attractor])

"That's a syllogistic series...expressed in terms of Lorenzian equations....What we're hoping eventually to get is a mathematical representation of the whole of physical reality. A set that includes all conceivable sets. In fact, that's theoretically unachievable because of the Lorenz effect, but by seeing where and why we fail we can track down all those strange attractors a little more closely."

He later claims that an equivalent way to describe it is to say that they are "expressing a finite set series in terms of a unified field theory." Yeah, right!

There really is no need for the mathematics to be used, since the solution to the mystery in the end just depends upon ordinary human motives and behaviors. However, we are supposed to believe that the mathematical analysis tells Dobie things like that another murder is imminent (of course, this is only told to high probability since the "butterfly effect" keeps him from saying anything with certainty).

I was bothered by this poor imitation of mathematics, by the book's claim that mathematicians are terrible cooks -- I'm personally offended by that one ; ) -- and sometimes frustrated by Dobie's inability to carry on a normal conversation (which is, I'm sure, intended as comic relief). But, all in all, this is a pretty good mystery novel that keeps you turning the pages to see what happens and occasionally gives you a reason to laugh out loud.

Contributed by John McCarthy

I think the author is using mathematics in an imaginative, fictional way (I'm pretty hopeless at Maths myself - but an excellent cook!) and has no purely scientific aspirations, but this in no way detracts from the novel's literary merits. By the way, my own personal favourite in the Dobie trilogy is The Mask of Zeus. In the UK, The Catalyst was published as The Strange Atractor"

(Yes, now that you point it out, I realize that "The Strange Attractor" would be a much better name for this book. I can't quite see how the title "The Catalyst" fits it much at all. I suppose they were just trying to avoid confusion with the two novels called "Strange Attractors".)

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Works Similar to The Catalyst [The Strange Attractor]
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez
  2. The Dobie Paradox by Desmond Cory
  3. The Mask of Zeus by Desmond Cory
  4. NUMB3RS by Nick Falacci / Cheryl Heuton
  5. The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell
  6. The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen
  7. The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem
  8. Death Qualified: A Mystery of Chaos by Kate Willhelm
  9. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
  10. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
Ratings for The Catalyst [The Strange Attractor]:
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:
2.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (2 votes)

TopicComputers/Cryptography, Chaos/Fractals, Logic/Set Theory, Probability/Statistics,

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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)