New Book – “Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature” by Sarah Hart!

The cream-colored cover of Sarah Hart’s “Once Upon a Prime” features a three-dimensional paper sculpture, in yellow and green, consisting of writing interspersed with mathematical formulas. The text is black. Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading Once Upon a Prime – The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature by Sarah Hart, professor of mathematics at Birbeck, University of London. She is also the thirty-third Gresham Professor of Geometry, the first woman to hold the position since its inception in 1597.  Once Upon a Prime… shows us the myriad ways in which mathematics and literature are connected.  She uses Herman Melville, George, Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sofya Kovalevskaya and other literary luminaries to present her case.     I found the examples thought-provoking.  For some of her examples, be prepared to get into the math weeds a bit.  Below is a review that appeared in the New York Times Book Review.

Interesting, fun book!.



The New York Times Book Review

Mathletes and Poets: Allies at Last!

By Jordan Ellenberg

April 11, 2023

ONCE UPON A PRIME: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature, by Sarah Hart

C.P. Snow opens a famed 1959 essay, “The Two Cultures,” with an anecdote about a dinner at Cambridge, during which a visiting historian attempted to make conversation with the men on either side of him, only to be met with bemused grunts. The scholar’s host quickly set him at ease, explaining, “Oh, those are mathematicians! We never talk to them.”

The gap between Snow’s “two cultures” — that of humanists and that of scientists — is no narrower (and no less grunty) in 2023. And mathematicians are often understood to sit on the far end of this divide, somewhere in an abstract realm, without even relatable atom-smashers or charismatic megafauna to chat about with their humanistic peers.

Not so, says Sarah Hart, in her wide-ranging and thoroughly winning “Once Upon a Prime.” Hart couldn’t be better placed to revisit the relationship between mathematical and literary study. She’s an accomplished group theorist at the University of London and the current Gresham professor of geometry, a position so old that its first occupant invented long division, and whose mission has always involved mathematical outreach to the general public — history dons included.

Hart’s argument is that mathematics, far from being in tension with the literary, is bound up with it and always has been. The evidence comes in two flavors: First, Hart finds mathematical influence in literature itself. She unfolds the permutational structure that governs poetic forms like sestinas (explaining along the way why you could have a poem that worked like a sestina with three rotating end words instead of six, but not with four). And she finds mathematical infrastructure underlying contemporary novels like Amor Towles’s “A Gentleman in Moscow” and Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries,” both of which, it turns out, are built on sequences of powers of two.

We also meet the French experimentalists of the Oulipo school, who among other things like to write novels without the vowel e (or, more challengingly, with only the vowel e), and still lesser-known writers who stretch their books even more forcefully onto a mathematical frame. I cannot say I’m eager to read the novel “Mobius the Stripper,” but I’m glad to know it exists. Hart’s excavation of the hidden patterns in these books allows her to teach a little math along the way — some spinach with the dessert, perhaps, but the exposition is well done and the unusual context renders it fresh.

Most novels aren’t built on a mathematical chassis, but Hart rolls out a surprisingly vast array of writers who had a taste for the discipline, and who depict math or mathematicians in their books. George Eliot’s novels are full of such incident, and in her own letters we see her turning that way for solace when life presents difficulties: “I take walks, play on the piano, read Voltaire, talk to my friends, and just take a dose of mathematics every day.” This matter-of-fact list — Voltaire, friends and math all together without a hint of incongruity — is a good reminder that the gulf between “two cultures” isn’t the way things have to be.

Hart hits some of the expected favorites, like “Flatland,” “Life of Pi” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” but also novelties: I didn’t know Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry both wrote cryptography stories, nor that Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad wrote a joint novel, “The Inheritors,” about an invasion of Earth by entities from the fourth dimension. These Dimensionists are described as “a race clear-sighted, eminently practical, incredible; with no ideals, prejudices, or remorse; with no feeling for art and no reverence for life; free from any ethical tradition; callous to pain, weakness, suffering and death.” This could almost be a contemporary expression of anxiety about artificial intelligence.

Or it could be a somewhat amped-up rendition of stereotypes about mathematicians. Hart is biting and funny in her critique of this too-common literary depiction of the mathematical mind: “the beguiling fantasy that scientists, and especially mathematicians, are driven by pure reason, that cleverness can get you out of any fix, and that everything can finally make sense if you can just ramify the ninth-dimensional asymptotes over a tangential vector field. Sadly, you can’t, first, because life isn’t like that, and second, because I’ve just made up all those phrases, so they are meaningless.”


That, in the end, is Hart’s message: that here in the third dimension, people are pretty much alike, and strive for beauty and meaning in similar ways whether they’re finding those things in words or sounds or equations. David Foster Wallace, who started out in the mathiest precincts of analytic philosophy, called this phenomenon “the click,” and said: “It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction.” Karl Weierstrass, in an 1883 letter to his student Sofya Kovalevskaya, wrote: “A mathematician who is not somewhat of a poet, will never be a complete mathematician.” (Though there’s of course the question of who gets to be considered a poet — I’ve seen this line referenced many times, but not until I was preparing this review did I learn that the quote cuts off the part of the sentence specifying that the problematically nonpoetic mathematicians were especially to be found among “those from the semitic tribe.”)

Kovalevskaya herself is perhaps the most powerful figure in Hart’s book, appearing triply: as a notable mathematician, as a literary character (in Alice Munro’s story “Too Much Happiness”) and as a novelist, the author of “Nihilist Girl.” Asked how she could reconcile her literary and mathematical interests, Kovalevskaya responded: “Many people who have never had occasion to learn what mathematics is confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. In actual fact it is the science which demands the utmost imagination.” The mistake Kovalevskaya warns against remains a very common one. Readers of Hart’s book won’t make it again.


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