Suppose you were reading a novel, or watching a play or film, that included a fictional mathematician …
My guess is that the moment you read the two words “fictional mathematician” a second or two ago, your mind leapt ahead and you had a pretty good idea of what he—yes he, since even if there are female fictional mathematicians out there, femaleness is unlikely to be part of your instant and not fully conscious reaction to the phrase—was like: a social misfit who is prone to flashes of extraordinary insight that completely baffle everybody else, or perhaps a social misfit who would like to have those flashes but doesn’t and goes mad instead, or perhaps a social misfit who does have the insights but with madness the huge price he has to pay.
So here is a question: is there any example of a mathematician in literature, theatre or cinema who is a fairly normal person socially, and pretty good at maths but not astoundingly so? Some examples that do not work are Uncle Petros, from Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, both the father and the daughter in Proof, and Will from Good Will Hunting: they’re all either ridiculously good at maths (usually without having to do all that routine stuff like learning the proof of Schur’s lemma, or the open mapping theorem, or the Gram-Schmidt orthogonalization process etc.) or mad, or both. I also don’t count characters if they are colleagues of a crazy genius and their main role in the book/play/film is to marvel at how clever the crazy genius is. Let’s say that the character has to be the main one, or at least the main mathematical one.
Here is an answer to the question: as of recently, there is such a character. He may not be the first, but he is the first that I know of. I now have to confess that this post is a blatant plug, because the character in question appears in a book written by my sister, Rebecca Gowers. Because of this, I won’t say any more than that I liked the book, and particularly liked the fact that Joe, one of the two main characters, is not just a mathematician but a human being as well, and even, dare I say it, someone that a non-mathematician might enjoy being friends with. Also, even though his being a mathematician plays a role in the book, it is by no means essential to the plot — maths just happens to be his job. It’s not as earth-shatteringly exciting as the president of the United States just happening to be black, but in a very small way it provokes in me a similar feeling: it is a kind of acceptance that didn’t seem possible, and now it has happened.
Before you ask, my sister did ask me a few questions when she was writing the novel, but the mathematician in her novel is not based on me. If he were, then I wouldn’t be writing this. And if you’re interested, the book in question is called The Twisted Heart. If you Google it, you can find reviews.