From their very first freshman activities, university students are divided into their faculties: Arts and Humanities, Science, Engineering, Agriculture... we imagine that while Arts students fulfill their Science requirements with classes nicknamed 'Moons for Goons', Science students are rolling their eyes behind a battered poetry anthology. Math is for the logical, literature is for the dreamers, and never the twain shall meet.
Like all divisions we rely upon to help us make sense of the world, this one is not nearly as black-and-white as we may assume. Just ask the author who is also a doctor of history and philosophy of science and technology with an undergraduate degree in math and drama. Or turn to Oxford University and its Humanities and Science series, which recently launched its 2015 programme with 'Narrative and Proof: Two Side of the Same Equation?'.
"Mathematicians are storytellers," posited scientist and keynote speaker Marcus du Sautoy. "Our characters are numbers and geometries. Our narratives are the proofs we create about these characters."
Du Sautoy's love of mathematics is rooted in the journey rather than the answer. Mathematical proofs are like detective stories for him; the last chapter, in which everything is revealed, is nothing without the build-up of the rest of the book. Both a proof and a novel require narrative to be exciting. He also notes that at times, the link between literature and math is even more direct, citing Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, in which each chapter is half the length of the previous one, thus creating the much-lauded pacing of the story.
Author Ben Okri is the next speaker up to bat, and he also sees the link between narrative and mathematical proof, arguing that there is an unavoidable logic to storytelling, and that working out the 'inner maths' of a story is one of the most challenging tasks a writer faces. Storytelling, he insists, is the oldest technology, and in the beautiful prose for which he is known, he tells us that "narrative is woven into the fabric of consciousness as mathematics is woven into the fabric of the world." Everything, from stories to theorems, is narrative.
And then mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose arrives on the scene to pierce through the poetry of his predecessors on the panel. He agrees that indeed, narrative and proof do share things in common: while one might suppose that an author can simply make characters do whatever he or she pleases, the fact of the matter is that authors do face constraints if characters are to be believable. He also identifies beauty as a common element of both sides of the narrative/proof coin. And yet, Sir Penrose insists, the two are irreconcilably different due to one unavoidable element: in math, you can tell a great story, but if you're not right, the rest doesn't matter.