Thursday, September 27, 2012

Math in Mysteries

Moriarty's evil plans!
Some time ago, I wrote a blog about the mysteries surrounding certain ideas in mathematics.  I’d like to turn that on its head.  What about mathematics in mysteries?  There’s quite a comprehensive history of the involvement of mathematics in mysteries by Alex Kasman in Notices of the American Mathematical Society which you can find here.  Because of my previous life (as a mathematician) I’m somewhat interested in this.

Probably the earliest reference to math in mystery fiction was by Edgar Allan Poe in The Purloined Letter. He made his thoughts about mathematicians rather clear when he had Dupin reject the possibility that the crime was committed by a “mere mathematician” because, in that case, he could “not have reasoned at all”.  That has been pretty much the stereotype of the mathematician in fiction – fixated on his subject, socially inept, and, if anything, a more likely candidate for the murderer than the detective.  In Agatha Christie’s The Bird with the Broken Wing, for example, the murderer is a mathematician who appears to be irrational as a result of being one rather than having any serious motive for his crime.

But there have been a few mathematical characters that didn’t fit that stereotype. We might start with the movie: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  Everyone knows that Holmes’ nemesis – nearly the ultimate nemesis – was Moriarty.  In the movie, Holmes (Robert Downey) was pitted against Moriarty (Jared Harris) in a life and death struggle very loosely based on The Final Problem.  Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t say a lot about Moriarty’s background, but Holmes described him as “a mathematical genius” and we learn that he wrote two important mathematical books.  One was A Treatise on the Binomial Theorem (which, Holmes tells us, won Moriarty a chair at a British university) and the other was The Dynamics of an Asteroid, which Isaac Asimov deduced was part of an ultimate plot to hold the whole world to ransom by steering an asteroid to crash into it.  So we discover that Moriarty is fiendishly mathematical.

Apparently the makers of the movie decided that they needed some genuine mathematical input and approached Alain Goriely and Derek Moultin of Oxford’s Centre for Collaborative Applied Mathematics to design appropriate visuals for the sort of mathematics Moriarty might have been doing for his two books.  They took it greatly to heart, and came up with blackboards full of the stuff meticulously transcribed in the sort of notation in use at the end of the nineteenth century. The n-body problem, the singularity blow-up in the 2-body problem, Poincaré’s homoclinic intersections, and Painlevé’s singularity, all featured.  Probably wisely, most of the material filmed around the mathematics lovingly created by the Oxford dons ended up on the cutting floor.  Still, one scene shows what Holmes is up against when he beards (metaphorically, that is) Moriarty in his den:

Going back to Alex Kasman, he suggests two murder mysteries in which the mathematicians are more three dimensional and the mathematics somewhat believable.  (Neither of the authors is a mathematician so you don’t have to worry about ending up solving Moriarty’s equations.)  The one is AFTER MATH by Miriam Webster and the other is THE FRACTAL MURDERS by Mark Cohen.  Neither of these seem to have hit the best seller lists but I’d like to read them if I can lay my hands on a copy.

Any other suggestions of enjoyable mysteries where math plays an interesting role?

Michael - Thursday


  1. The Oxford Murders and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time?

  2. Michael, I'm sure there's a Dr. Seuss book out there somewhere ("One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish"?), which is about the extent of my grasp of NUMBers these days.:) Though once, a long, long, time ago, in a far away galaxy, I actually was quite good with a slide rule [see, Wikipedia, "Tools of the Ancients."].

  3. I may need Jeff's slide rule to figure out if that author's real name is Miriam Webster. Of course, she may just another Michael Stanley or Annamaria Alfieri!

  4. For figuring out that author, Annamaria, I think a better choice would be a dictionary....

  5. I never got any further than AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. That pretty much pushed me to my mathematical limits. I actually regret deeply my mathematical illiteracy. It's such a drag to wade through some counter-intuitive bit of cosmology and see an asterisk and follow it down to something like, "Or, to put it more elegantly . . ." and then there's something that looks like an alphabet and a calculator sneezed in unison onto the page.

  6. The Curious Incident had some fun number sequences (as did The Da Vinci Code for that matter). I haven't met The Oxford Murders and they'll go on the list. Thanks for the suggestion, Maxine.

    I love your description of mathematical footnotes, Tim! I know what you mean. I assure you that those are incomprehensible to mathematicians too!

    Oh, yes, and Miriam Webster's real name is Amy Babich. And she is a mathematician. Yes, I lied...

    1. Michael, We don't have to call it lying. We can just say we are writing fiction. BTW, the other Michael Sears told me he is also looking forward to meeting you.