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Cover of book Once Upon a Prime
From Pivot Magazine

Game of...numbers? Finding literary meaning in the math

Mathematician Sarah Hart delves deep into the hidden significance of numbers written into literary classics throughout history

Cover of book Once Upon a PrimeAccording to author Sarah Hart, humans are hard-wired to love and seek out patterns in both the natural and human worlds (Image provided)

Sarah Hart, the 33rd Gresham Professor of Geometry, is a mathematician, to put it mildly. She is, in fact, the first woman to hold the oldest mathematical chair in the United Kingdom, created in 1597 in the will of the Elizabethan financier Sir Thomas Gresham, he of Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”). It’s hardly remarkable, then, that Hart writes articles like “A Theorem on Maximal Sum-Free Sets in Groups.” Far more surprising is that she’s also the author of “Ahab’s Arithmetic: The Mathematics of Moby-Dick,” and someone who annually reads the entire Booker Prize shortlist. In short, Hart—to adapt one of the finer phrases from the pen of Lewis Carroll, himself a mathematician turned literary genius—does seem capable of accomplishing “six impossible things before breakfast.”

That might have been a theorem in the past, but the proof has now arrived in Hart’s Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature. Hart writes of the presence of math in what she calls the housing of literature (the ties that bind poetry and math); in the furnishing of the house (metaphor and allusion from three wishes to 40 thieves); and in the characters who dwell within (Professor Moriarty, the mathematician turned Sherlock Holmes’ archenemy, and Pi Patel of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi). Prime is as elegant as a proper mathematical theorem, erudite but accessible, hugely informative and, above all, a joyful paean to the beauty of structure. Dive into it and, as Hart warns, “you’re going to need a bigger bookcase.”

Hart notes how humans are hard-wired to love and seek out patterns in both the natural and human worlds, making mathematics and structured stories (especially poetry) two of our most ancient creative expressions. Both are found in the oldest known works by a named author, Enheduanna, high priestess of the moon god in the city of Ur over 4,000 years ago. Her Temple Hymns are rife with geometry references and numbers, and one states that a wise woman “measures the heavens above/and stretches the measuring cord on the earth.” Math is omnipresent in what Hart calls “the deep currents of verse,” lying beneath its rhymes and flowing through its metre: “[Poetry] is simply the continuation of mathematics by other means.”

Math runs through novels, too, right up to the present day, in both structure and content. For the former, Hart offers an intricate dissection of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries. She lays bare why each of the 12 chapters is half the length of the preceding one, why a key plot point—£4096 worth of stolen gold—requires precisely that number, and how the whole 832 pages offer a mirror image of “the widening gyre” in W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” one of the 20th century’s most cited poems.

As for content, Hart happily ranges through time and space, from Gulliver’s Travels to modern times. She cites narrator Ishmael’s love of geometric cycloids in Moby-Dick, takes note of the not-infrequent appearance of cold-hearted mathematician villains like Professor Moriarty, and explains why Pi Patel was adrift (with a Bengal tiger, no less) on the ocean for precisely 227 days—22 sevenths, aka 22/7, is as close an approximation of the number Pi as 3.14 is. But in literature nothing trumps the magic numbers, which include five, seven nine, 12, 40 and the undisputed king, three.

Trichotomies, mathematicians’ term for sets, however large, where each individual entry has one of three relationships to the others—larger, smaller or equal—resonate in the human psyche, Hart argues. They are everywhere in math—every angle is either acute (less than 90 degrees), a right angle (equal to 90 degrees), or obtuse (greater than 90 degrees). And it’s everywhere in human thought and expression, albeit in reverse, with two relatively precise parts and one prolonged section: birth, life, death; sunrise, daytime, sunset; first shot, Hundred Years’ War, last shot; and (of course) beginning, middle, end.

Then there’s Alice. A whole lot of math went down the rabbit hole with her in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, including Carroll’s notorious obsession with the number 42. The number is found sprinkled across his writings, on the surface and in the depths, where it’s still visible to Hart. Why, she wonders, does the White Queen say she’s precisely 101 years, five months and one day old? Hart calculates the number of days involved (37,044), assumes the Red Queen (from the same chess set) is the same age, adds the days of their lives, and comes up 74,088. Which is exactly 42 × 42 × 42.

No one has yet come up with a convincing explanation for Carroll’s obsession. Perhaps Douglas Adams got it right in his tribute to Carroll, and the Alice author thought—as Adams had it in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—that 42 is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Or maybe, as Hart—who ought to know and who displays the same tendency throughout her entrancing book—puts it, 42 is simply a number: “I suspect he just took a shine to it.”


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