Maryam Mirzakhani, and the Art of Writing a Novel on Science | KATARINA WEST

Maryam Mirzakhani, and the Art of Writing a Novel on Science

Absolute Truth, For Beginners tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a world-famous mathematician.

At the end of the day, there seem to be two kinds of human beings: number people and word people. Number people are good at counting, measuring and abstractions, or at visualizing shapes, sizes and positions of figures, or properties of space. Word people are good at conveying events and stories in words, often by enriching and embellishing them, creating worlds that exist only in our imagination.

Since I was a child, I’ve been a word person. Words have always been easy for me, so easy that as a teenager I felt lazy about studying: why study, when you can fake so easily that you know something? (Occasionally I wonder if being a novelist is nothing but the art of faking: you pretend that you know something about something, but in reality you don’t know anything, and the world you describe doesn’t even exist.) In contrast, mathematics was the only subject in which I needed supplementary teaching, and still today I have troubled dreams about facing a maths exam the following day and not being prepared.

Yet this December I’m going to be publishing my second novel, Absolute Truth, For Beginners, which tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a world-famous mathematician, Judith Shapiro. So how come I, the quintessential word person, wrote a novel that is set in the world of mathematics and science? Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that – except that there is something about the exactness and logicality of hard sciences that fascinate me. What’s more, my initial motivation to write Absolute Truth, For Beginners wasn’t the plot, or a certain character, but a physics theory claiming that in reality time doesn’t exist and all motion is an illusion. This theory is Judith Shapiro’s lifework, and one of the key parts of the story is her struggle to prove that it is right.

At first glance the world of numbers and the world of words seem different to say the least. Words are seemingly easy, both to read and to write, and maybe one of the tokens of this is the widely-spread belief that anyone can write a novel, if they just had the time and the occasion to do it. The world of numbers, in contrast, is demanding and even cold, devoid of any kind of superficiality. ‘I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold,’ Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian mathematician and a professor at Stanford, has said. ‘The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.’

What made Maryam Mirzakhani relevant for me when writing this novel is the fact that she is an internationally acclaimed mathematician and a woman, just like Judith Shapiro in Absolute Truth, For Beginners. In 2014 she won the Fields Medal, the so-called Nobel Prize of mathematics, thanks to her contributions to the understanding of the symmetry of curved surfaces; and as such she is the first woman ever to win that prize.

Brilliant and courageous in her work, the mother of one, the curious thing about Mirzakhani is that as a young girl her biggest dream was to become… a novelist. She spent her free time reading novels, reading anything that came into her hands. But by high school numbers had overshadowed words, because, in her words, solving a mathematical problem was like ‘solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case’.

So mathematicians solve problems and novelists tell stories – but maybe there are more similarities between the two than what meets the eye? Because ultimately a story is nothing but a structure, just like a maths proof; and to create either of them is five per cent insight and ninety-five per cent hard work. Both are textbook examples of creative work: they’re about tilting at windmills, and being in a long, dark tunnel with no end in sight.

And there is nothing like stepping out of that tunnel, knowing that your work is finished, ready to live on its own.  



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