A Brief Collection of Math Metaphors in Literature – Math with Bad Drawings


This list breaks whatever I’ve been taught about excellent writing.

Good writing, they state, is sensory and vibrant. It includes punchy verbs, concrete nouns, and long descriptions of rain.

Mathematics is not sensory. It is not concrete. And it is very little helpful for explaining rain.

Instead, mathematics is a library of principles: rack after rack of abstract relations in between x and y Mathematical concepts resemble pencil illustrations of spider webs, heavenly and airy schematics of something that was heavenly and quite airy to start with.

And that’s what makes mathematical metaphors so best.

The essence of books is context. They reveal us individuals embedded in universes, whatever existing in relation to whatever else. Mathematics offers us expressive and accurate language for those relations, certainly, for all relations. Because of that alone, mathematics is an effective source of metaphors for purveyors (and criminals) of great literature.

Here, then, is a short collection of mathematical metaphors I’ve discovered, in addition to why I enjoy them.

” A Sort of Semantic Geometry”

"We speak a kind of esoteric, family language, a sort of semantic geometry in which the shortest distance between any two points is a fullish circle." -J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

Why I enjoy it: The storyteller is explaining his household’s elaborate characteristics. Not able to speak clearly, they sofa whatever in intellectual video games. Of course he couches this belief in an intellectual video game.

” Everything Doubling Back Over Itself”

"We talked all night. Everything felt so intense and coiled and Mobius strip-like, all those drinks and drugs and hormones making everything constantly double back over itself." -Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

Why I enjoy it: The Mobius strip is the sort of astonishing, trippy item you may initially come across in college. It makes a fitting image for a late-night dormitory discussion.

” The Revolutions of an Irregular Solid”

"In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could be hardly less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid." -George Eliot, Middlemarch

Why I enjoy it: Mr. Brooke is so bad at comprehending ladies that it extends even his option of example; he deals with “female” as a type of computational difficulty. “Irregular” is a particularly scrumptious option of term: as if, to Mr. Brooke, there is something irregular about the operations of ladies, as if their minds are off-center items, turning unusually. ( Thanks to my buddy James Butler for revealing me this one.)

” This Is An Averaging Gun.”

He took [the gun] from his shoulder and held it for me to see. "It's a combination gun. Look, two triggers. This"—he tapped the broad-gauge tube—"a shotgun. It spreads possibilities." He made an extending cone with his hands. "And this?" The other. "This rifle's a long-range single shot."

He showed me how he'd aim with it.

"You can shoot one, the other, or both. The rifle shoots right down the very center of the spread. Like an average. A range and its mean. This is an averaging gun."

-China Mieville, This Census Taker

Why I Love It: This metaphor baffles and terrifies me, similar to this book baffled and scared me. It’s an excellent image for the book itself: both a scattershot spray and a work of extremely targeted accuracy, focusing on something in the range I can’t rather recognize.

” Caves Like Nothing She Had Ever Seen”

"The caves were like nothing she had ever seen. There were many of them, hundreds, some tiny, no more than bubbles in the rock, some big as the doors of hangars. They made a lacework of circles interlocking and overlapping in the wall of rock, patterns, traceries. The edges of the entrances were fretted with clusters of lesser circles, silvery stone shining against black shadow, like soap-suds, like foam, like the edges of Mandelbrot figures." -Ursula Le Guin, The Telling

Why I enjoy it: The description keeps reaching and penetrating for a more image, an extra improvement; what much better location to come to rest than a fractal, which consists of infinite more layers of penetrating and improvement? (Though Le Guin points out the Mandelbrot set, the images advises me more of an Apollonian gasket: circles in between circles in between circles.)

” If We Can Only Keep the Pendulum Vertical”

"Indulgence leads to misbehavior, which angers the nanny and prompts her to deliver punishment more severe than is warranted. The nanny then feels regret, and subsequently overcompensates with further indulgence. It is an inverted pendulum, prone to oscillations of ever-increasing magnitude. If we can only keep the pendulum vertical, there is no need for subsequent correction." -Ted Chiang, "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny," Exhalation

Why I enjoy it: The storyteller, extremely analytical, thinks about the relationship in between his child and the baby-sitter as a type of dynamical system that keeps falling out of its balance. The system rather swings in between overindulgence and intensity. The mechanical description belies that his own cold aloofness is the genuine issue.

” As Intangible as an Equation”

"Emergencies in space can be as obvious as an explosion or as intangible as an equation, but their obviousness has nothing to do with how dangerous they are." -Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

Why I enjoy it: This metaphor threatens to stop being a metaphor at all, and end up being actual. Area travel is made possible by our work with formulas. The result, I discover, is to blur the line in between sign and signified, in between the mathematical design and the world it explains. It paints deep space as a type of abstract space, which we pass through like voyagers through Plato’s world of kinds, browsing around concepts and principles that can in some way eliminate us.

” A self-defining item of one surface area just.”

"In itself, a dictionary is like a Mobius strip, a self-defining object of one surface only, collecting and explaining without claiming a narrative third dimension.... It is the readers who... recognize in a dictionary one or several of many books: an anthology, a hierarchical catalogue, a philological thesaurus, a parallel memory, a writing and reading tool. A dictionary is all these things, though not all perhaps at the same time." -Albert Manguel, Packing My Library

Why I Love It: In Manguel’s vision, the dictionary resembles a mathematical abstraction: a self-dependent, rationally circular item, waiting for people to translate and designate implying to it. Hence, it’s not simply the particular picture of the Mobius strip that offers the passage, however the acquired taste of mathematics itself.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got in the meantime. To be broadened as others capture my eye!



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