the Little Red Reviewer

The Mathochism Tango

Posted on: February 6, 2011

Mathochist: Someone who sucks at math, and probably failed calculus a few times, yet voluntarily purchases and reads books about math, the history of math, fractals, etc, because it just feels so good.  i.e.: Me.

It’s a major faux pas to book-blog about a book you haven’t finished yet, isn’t it?  pfft. I’m a mathochist AND a faux pas blogger. And I have this sudden urge to listen to an old Tom Lehrer CD.

Which brings us in a very round about way to Ian Stewart’s Flatterland: like Flatland, but more so. You remember Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, don’t you?  Came out like a hundred years ago, involves a 3-dimensional person who visits a 2-dimentional world called Flatland, and fails to explain to the flatlanders that there is a whole  new world out there?  It also involved much in the way of criticism and satire about Victorian England, all of which was lost on me. I was in it for the math.

So back to Stewart’s homage/sequel Flatterland: imagine if Richard Feynman’s seventh easy piece was written a la Alice in Wonderland, and every creature and or place taught you in the easiest language imaginable everything you ever wanted to know about math, the universe, and everything?  But as much as I love Feynman, he was never this witty.  All that, and I haven’t even finished reading the book yet!

I’m only half way through, and I already feel like I’ve learned more math (and it’s practical applications) than I did in trig, pre-calc, pre-calc again, and 2 attempts at calculus.  I could have avoided so much math pain if Flatterland had been required reading in my 11th grade pre-calc class.

The premise of Flatterland isn’t that far off from the original – the residents of of Flatland are minding their own corners and points when the Doctor Who-esque Space Hopper visits  a teenaged Victoria Line (who is in fact, quite literally, a line), and offers to show her the wonders of the 3-D universe.   and then they hit up the 4-D universe, and then a few pages later we’re in more dimensions than I can count. literally.

And like all high schoolers, Victoria wants to know when in her life is she ever going to use this stuff? Who cares?  And the Space Hopper tells her, and us, why math is so important, so perfect, and so beautiful.

And who knew math could be so punny?  The Mandleblot runs a taxi service in Quadratic City and explains how fractals work and how to build one. The Moobius cow’s milk is sold in Klein bottles, explaining about sides, edges and localities.  At the Topologist’s tea party the doughmouse talks about context dependent topology until the Harsh Mare and the Mud Hutter come along.  Victoria also meet’s Schrodinger’s cat who insists on knowing if she’s an observer or not, and later she meets the paradox twins, Twindledumb and Twindledumber, who are twins although one is much older than the other.

Flatterland is fictional, yet fully factual.   You’ll read it and you’ll feel smart.  Math isn’t masochism, it’s the language of the universe. You don’t have to be good at math to enjoy reading about it, I’m proof.  And if you’re a high schooler or college student struggling with circumfrencii and geometricks and dimensionalities?  Ian Stewart’s Flatterland is for you.

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3 Responses to "The Mathochism Tango"

Funny you should mention Alice in Wonderland; according to Cracked.com (so, grain of salt), it was written to point out the fallacies of abstract mathematics by following that field’s logic.

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wow, yeah, grain of salt. but it does make Flatterland look like the purest opposite of Alice in Wonderland.

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[...] nearly always turned into a math lecture. Complete with diagrams. I felt like I was reading Flatterland, and that book is in the non-fiction section of the library for a reason. (Flatterland is a story [...]

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