Matrix Editions
serious mathematics,
written with the reader in mind

Mathematics in Literature

Previous challenges

Can you identify the author of the following passage? The book?

December 1, 2011

Everything has to begin somewhere and there is no answer to that.  Except, of course, why does it?  Why, since we acceptthe notion of infinity without end, should we not accept the logically identical notion of infinity without beginning? ... Considerthe series of proper fractions. Etcetera. (To secretary.)  Then Cantor, then no beginning, etcetera, then Zeno. Insert: But the fact is, the first term of the series is not an infinite fraction but zero. It exists. God, so to speak, is nought.

from Jumpers by Tom Stoppard.

June 1, 2011

 It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven. That is not imagination. No,  it kills it.

from Howards End,  by E.M. Forster

December 1  2010

The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock's; and, when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again.  The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched...

The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail.  It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, folding slowly, quenching  its own  lights and fires.

From A Portrait of the Artist as a
Young Man, James Joyce 

August 1 2010

The problem,  Jamie had long felt, was not that people weren't capable of telling the truth; it was that they weren't able to understand what they were hearing.  The truth was not a line from here to there, and not ever-widening circles like the rings on a sawn log, but rather trails of oscillating overlapping liquids that poured forth but then assumed a shape and life of their own, that circled back around in spirals and fluctuations to touch and color all truths that came out after that one.  So a thing was not one thing but many things.  A fact many facts.

from In the Fall,  by Jeffrey Lent.

December 2009

A man, he would say, is like the number one while a woman is like a zero. When they each live apart, his value is not great, and she has no value at all, but when they enter into a marriage, then a certain new number is created.  If she is a good wife, she stands behind the one and multiplies its strength tenfold.  If she is a bad wife, then she pushes her way in front of it and weakens the man by the same number of times, reducing him to a mere tenth part of a whole.

For the answer, click here  

August 2009

... it was not that that I hoped to find when I began to pry around in Grandmother's life.  I thought when I began, and still think, that there was another angle in all those years when she was growing old and older and very old, and Grandfather was matching her year for year, a separate line that did not intersect with hers.  They were vertical people, they lived by pride, and it is only by the ocular illusion of perspective that they can be said to have met.  But he had not been dead two months when she lay down and died too, and that may indicate that at the absolute vanishing point they did intersect.  They had intersected for years, for more than he especially would ever admit.

For the answer, click here 

April 2009

...for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you.  And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren't really like us.  That you were less than human, so it didn't matter.  And that was how things stood until our little movement came along.  But do you see what we were up against?  We were virtually attempting to square the circle.  Here was the world, requiring students to donate.  While that remained the case, there would always be a barrier against seeing you as properly human.

For the answer, click here

December 2008

He knew, without turning to look, that Professor Tonks had entered the room.  It was always like this with Tonks, the quiet entry.  He seemed  to insinuate himself into the room.  You knew he'd arrived only when you saw the students sitting opposite straighten their shoulders or bend more anxiously over their drawings.  Tonks was a dark planet whose presence could be deduced only by a deviation in the orbit of other bodies.

For the answer, click here

September 2008

Verona lies in a more or less semi-circular loop of river and we had set out from the approximate centre from the point, I mean, equidistant from each point on the bank:  according to the laws of geometry, it seemed to me, we should be able, by walking along the bank and taking, when we chose to do so, a turning perpendicular to it, to return, without retracing our steps, to our point of departure.
 Knowing how infrequently in the real world things obey the laws of mathematics or any other logical system, I would not,  perhaps, but for the wine we had drunk at lunch, have ventured to put this theory to any empirical test; but Verona showed a proper respect for the laws of geometry.  Leaving the Cathedral, we walked some distance along the bank, ... then turning off at right angles to the river, we proceeded, so far as possible, in a straight line; and found ourselves, just as Euclid would have expected, back in the main square.
 I was astonished at my success.

For the answer, click here

June 2008

He could begin to see it.  When the troops came out of the woods the artillery would open up... The troops would be under fire with more than a mile to walk... A few hundred yards out, still in the open field, they would come with range of skirmish, aimed rifles.  Losses would steadily increase. When they reached the road they would be slowed by the fence there.... When they crossed the road, they would begin to take cannon fire and thousands of balls of shrapnel wiping huge holes in the lines.... If they reached the wall without breaking, there would not be many left.  It was a mathematical equation.  But maybe the artillery would break up the defense.  There was that hope.  But that was Hancock up there.  And Hancock would not run. So it is mathematical after all.  If they reach the road and get beyond it, they will suffer fifty percent casualties. 

For the answer, click here