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Case of Lies (2005)
Perri O\'Shaughnessy

An old, unsolved casino murder becomes mathematical when three of the witnesses turn out to have been math students using their skills to win at gambling. Quite a bit of detailed discussion of number theory, the Riemann Hypothesis and quantum theory is included. For instance:

(quoted from Case of Lies)

"My paper for number-theory class. On the Riemann Hypothesis. The zeta function."

"Of course." She smiled, and he understood what she meant: that was just like him to choose the most difficult, abstruse subject possible.

She said, "My paper is also on the primes."

"You're kidding!"

"But I'm following a line based on the work of Michael Berry. I'm interested in the idea that the energy levels in heavy nuclei seem to be related to Hermitian matrices in the same way that the primes are. I'm a double major in physics, did you know that?"

"I didn't know you had this interest," Elliot said. "but the Hermitian matrices correlations -- they are just interesting correlations, until someone can explain the actual relationship, if there is one. Personally, I don't believe there's any connection between the primes and the real world, even the subatomic world. I used to think that, though. When I was a kid."

"You are wrong, Wakefield. the primes have a deep connection to the real world. I think maybe the primes are the real world, the real building blocks of the universe. Have you read Volovich's paper for CERN on that topic? Anyway, there's room for both of us, wouldn't you say?"

"Sure. It's just incredible that you are into the primes. Berry, that's pretty new stuff. He's in England, isn't he?"

Silke said "Ja, it's new. That idiot Riemann. Saying his hypothesis was probably true, but never giving us any part of a proof. I'll never forgive him."

"It wasn't his fault. After he died, his housekeeper threw out most of his papers."

"He should ahve had a better housekeeper." She smiled. "Why can't geniuses find decent housekeepers?"

The Riemann Hypothesis is a statement about where the zeroes of a certain function -- the zeta function -- lie. It is connected to number theory since that function can be written in an elegant way in terms of the prime numbers. (And so, perhaps our difficulty in identifying the zeroes of the function is related to our difficulty in describing which numbers on the number line are prime and which are not.) It is one of the more famous open problems in mathematics, and consequently one would receive not only fame but riches as well for resolving it!

The connection to quantum physics is very much as described in the book. It won't be easy to give a non-technical summary in greater detail, but let me try: You may well have encountered matrices of numbers at some point in your mathematical education. These are rectangular arrays, blocks if you will, of numbers. If the matrix is square (same number of rows and columns), then there are certain special numbers associated to it called its eigenvalues. (If you think of a matrix as an operator that turns vectors into other vectors by multiplication -- flippling, twisting and stretching them -- then the eigenvalues are a measure of how much it stretches those vectors that are not twisted.) As it turns out, this is a VERY important idea in quantum physics. According to the dogma of quantum mechanics, every measurement that you can make is just the eigenvalue of some associated operator. So, in particular, the energy levels of electrons that you may recall from chemistry are nothing but the "vectors" associated to the different eigenvalues of the energy operator. Now, if you're thinking that this doesn't sound very much like number theory, you're right. That's why it is such a surprise that there is a connection, even if it is only a connection of vague similarity at this point without any proof. The thing is, when Hugh Montgomery got some results about the spacings between the zeroes of the zeta function, physicist Freeman Dyson recognized it as being precisely the same sort of statistical results that one gets about the eigenvalues of the matrices used to model electron energy levels. So, one approach to proving it is to try to find an operator that really has the zeroes of the zeta function as its eigenvalues. As the book says, at this point it is only wishful thinking, but it is something that people are really pursuing.

For more information, try reading this article by Ivars Peterson.

The plot also eventually depends on the relationship between prime numbers and internet security. This is not as vague as the hypothesized connection to physics described above. In fact, modern cryptography is based on number theory and there is the very real possibility that a mathematical discovery could make it possible for someone to read all of the encrypted messages on the internet (including your credit card number when you use it at an online store)! As far as we know, we are all safe for now because nobody knows how to quickly factor really large numbers, but a discovery like the ones considered in this book could change everything. For a more detailed discussion of how number theory is used in cryptography, check out the boxed information on the review of Eye of the Beholder.

Contributed by Anonymous

there are some big math mistakes in this book. you should publish a list of math errata in fiction!

Yes, I do generally point out mathematical errors in fiction on this website. (Sometimes I receive complaints about that from people who think it is an unfair to criticize fiction for such errors, but I think it is more important for me to make sure that people are aware of these mistakes.) So, if Mr. Anonymous (or any of his friends) would care to write in with a more specific list of mathematical errors in "Case of Lies", I'd be happy to post them here!

Contributed by Anonymous

page 304--Elliott Wakefield estimates the distance from his position to the motel balcony as "Forty feet on the horizontal, ten feet up." He then says the hypotenuse is "Fifty-two point zero-zero-six feet." But 40 to the second power plus 10 to the second power equals 1700 equals 41.23 to the second power.

page 44--Elliott quizzes Carleen: "Is the square root of two still one point four one two and change?" Actual answer is 1.414, not 1.412

I hope you will publish these math errata--I can't believe that no mathematician has ever noticed these elementary math errors in this book!

Contributed by nancyjo

This is the 11th book in a series. I consider the series to be pretty high quality, a 4 on a scale of 1-5. So evaluating this book on just the math element is evaluating it in a vacuum to some extent. I liked it a lot, but am not sure how I would have reacted to it if I had read it independent of the series. I am not a mathematician but think of myself as a mathematically minded person.

More information about this work can be found at
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Ratings for Case of Lies:
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 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
1.75/5 (4 votes)

MotifFemale Mathematicians,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Mathematical Physics, Real Mathematics,

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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)