West Coast maths is no mystery

New book in the style of LA crime fiction offers maths lessons from a private eye

February 4, 2016
Key evidence marked at crime scene
Source: Alamy
Licence to thrill: the work is written in the voice of a wise-cracking detective

A former maths professor has turned detective to demonstrate just how useful – and how entertaining – his subject can be.

James Stein, emeritus professor of mathematics at California State University, Long Beach, has long enjoyed the way that “mathematics has managed to infiltrate itself into science fiction”.

Two of his favourite stories involve a mathematician who “summons Lucifer and bets his soul that the Devil can’t come up with a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in 24 hours” and “the unexpected consequences when the city of Boston constructs a subway system with bizarre topological properties”.

This led him to an idea of using detective fiction for “the most student-friendly math text ever written”, aimed at those taking introductory maths for liberal arts courses common in American universities.

He suspects that L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels is the first “collection of stories, with a continuing set of characters, in which mathematics plays an important role”.

The title refers to both liberal arts and Los Angeles, he explains in the preface, because “there’s still a mystique and a fascination to L.A. that Wichita, Kansas, and Peoria, Illinois, simply don’t have”. Putting it in a title, therefore, “virtually guarantee[s] people will be interested – I hope, even if the next word is ‘Math’”.

So how do the stories pan out? Private investigator Freddie Carmichael is starting a new life in Los Angeles but still pining for his ex-wife Lisa in New York. He finds accommodation in a guest house owned by Pete Lennox, whom he instantly diagnoses as “a sports junkie. Probably a sports better.”

As he begins to pick up cases of dodgy bookies, insider trading and murdered heiresses, he soon discovers that Pete’s gambler’s instinct for the figures can be just as effective as hours of dogged detective work.

By the end, readers should have acquired some of the basics of algebra and geometry, probability, game theory and the mathematics of elections.

On the way, Professor Stein has fun adopting the voice of a hard-boiled, wise-cracking private eye. When Freddie gets worried that Pete might be about to move away, he consoles himself with the thought that “Pete and inertia were more than just on speaking terms; they were really good buddies”. Trying to get back together with Lisa, he tells her that he has turned vegetarian and reflects that “it’s not a complete lie. There have been periods when I eat no meat. Those periods, however, tend to coincide with the periods between meals.”

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com


James Stein’s L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels has just been published by Princeton University Press.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Mathematics is no mystery

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

PhD Position in Archaeology and Cultural History

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

PhD position in Energy and Process Engineering

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

PhD position in Energy and Process Engineering

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

PhD position in Industrial Energy Efficiency

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Postdoc in Traffic Engineering

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu
See all jobs

Most Commented

Doctoral study can seem like a 24-7 endeavour, but don't ignore these other opportunities, advise Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman

Matthew Brazier illustration (9 February 2017)

How do you defeat Nazis and liars? Focus on the people in earshot, says eminent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt

Improvement, performance, rankings, success

Phil Baty sets out why the World University Rankings are here to stay – and why that's a good thing

Warwick vice-chancellor Stuart Croft on why his university reluctantly joined the ‘flawed’ teaching excellence framework

people dressed in game of thrones costume

Old Germanic languages are back in vogue, but what value are they to a modern-day graduate? Alice Durrans writes