The best books with mathematician characters

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a mathematician and incurable book-lover. It’s been one of the joys of my life to explore the links between mathematics and literature. The stories we tell ourselves about mathematics and mathematicians are fascinating, and especially the ways in which mathematicians are portrayed in fiction. I’m the first female Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London, a role created in 1597. I don’t fit the mathematician stereotype of the dishevelled old man, obsessed only with numbers (well, perhaps I am slightly dishevelled), so I particularly relish books featuring mathematicians who bring more to the party than this. I hope you’ll enjoy my recommended books as much as I did!  


I wrote...

Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature

By Sarah Hart,

Book cover of Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature

What is my book about?

We often think of mathematics and literature as polar opposites. But what if, instead, they were fundamentally linked? In her clear, insightful, laugh-out-loud funny debut, Once Upon a Prime, Professor Sarah Hart shows us the myriad connections between math and literature, and how understanding those connections can enhance our enjoyment of both.

From sonnets to fairytales to experimental French literature, Professor Hart shows how math and literature are complementary parts of the same quest, to understand human life and our place in the universe. As the first woman to hold England’s oldest mathematical chair, Professor Hart is the ideal tour guide, taking us on an unforgettable journey through the books we thought we knew, revealing new layers of beauty and wonder. As she promises, you’re going to need a bigger bookcase.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture

Sarah Hart Why did I love this book?

Uncle Petros, whose story is told by his nephew, devotes his entire mathematical career to “Goldbach’s conjecture”, a deceptively simple observation that every even number from 4 upwards is the sum of two prime numbers.

It’s true for every even number we try, but nobody’s been able to prove it will always work. This book does perhaps the best job in fiction of capturing the emotional experience of abstract mathematics research. That feeling of doing battle with problems so hard they can take years to make any progress at all, problems that you could spend your whole life failing to solve.

I first read it as an aspiring teenage mathematician, and having since experienced the joys and frustrations of a research career, I love it even more now.

By Apostolos Doxiadis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uncle Petros is a family joke. An ageing recluse, he lives alone in a suburb of Athens, playing chess and tending to his garden. If you didn't know better, you'd surely think he was one of life's failures. But his young nephew suspects otherwise. For Uncle Petros, he discovers, was once a celebrated mathematician, brilliant and foolhardy enough to stake everything on solving a problem that had defied all attempts at proof for nearly three centuries - Goldbach's Conjecture.

His quest brings him into contact with some of the century's greatest mathematicians, including the Indian prodigy Ramanujan and the young…


Book cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Sarah Hart Why did I love this book?

Christopher Boone is a boy who loves mathematics. Numbers and patterns make sense to him – they don’t tell lies like people do.

When his neighbour’s dog is found dead, he decides to investigate, using pure logic like his hero Sherlock Holmes. It’s clear that Christopher is neurodiverse in some way, he’s possibly autistic, but (and I really like this about the book) no specific label is given.

This is a conscious choice by the author because there is no “typical” autistic person – as Mark Haddon says, they are as large and diverse a group as any other group in society. You could say the same thing about mathematicians!

By Mark Haddon,

Why should I read it?

24 authors picked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year

'Outstanding...a stunningly good read' Observer

'Mark Haddon's portrayal of an emotionally dissociated mind is a superb achievement... Wise and bleakly funny' Ian McEwan

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger's Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the…


Book cover of Half of a Yellow Sun

Sarah Hart Why did I love this book?

In Odenigbo, the Professor of Statistics at Nsukka University who is a main character in Adichie’s powerful novel, she gives us a mathematician who is both brilliant and flawed, both good and bad.

He is a mass of contradictions, as we all are: a fully-rounded person. Adichie’s parents were caught up in the Biafran-Nigerian civil war – the subject of this book – and her father James Nwoye Adichie was a real-life Nsukka statistician.

There’s a tell-tale gap in his research output: between 1967 and 1974 he published no papers. Call me sentimental, but when Adichie gives to Odenigbo’s lost research articles titles that might fit with her father’s work, I like to think that it’s a tribute to the work he also did not have the chance to complete.

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Half of a Yellow Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE BAILEYS PRIZE BEST OF THE BEST

Winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007, this is a heartbreaking, exquisitely written literary masterpiece

This highly anticipated novel from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is set in Nigeria during the 1960s, at the time of a vicious civil war in which a million people died and thousands were massacred in cold blood.

The three main characters in the novel are swept up in the violence during these turbulent years. One is a young boy from a poor village who is employed at a university lecturer's house. The other is a…


Book cover of Arcadia

Sarah Hart Why did I love this book?

This play is a total delight. Read it, of course, and then if it ever comes to a theatre anywhere near you, go see it!

It’s set in 1809 and the present-ish day, and features exuberant mathematical prodigy Thomasina Coverly, who definitely isn’t meant to be Ada Lovelace, says Tom Stoppard (but maybe she is a bit).

The dialogue is like the most invigorating dinner party conversation you ever had: it’s funny, it’s clever, it references fractals, Fermat’s Last Theorem, the silly competitiveness of academia, Lord Byron, landscape gardening, and a million other things. I love it. 

By Tom Stoppard,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Arcadia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a large country house in Derbyshire in April 1809 sits Lady Thomasina Coverly, aged thirteen, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge. Through the window may be seen some of the '500 acres inclusive of lake' where Capability Brown's idealized landscape is about to give way to the 'picturesque' Gothic style: 'everything but vampires', as the garden historian Hannah Jarvis remarks to Bernard Nightingale when they stand in the same room 180 years later.

Bernard has arrived to uncover the scandal which is said to have taken place when Lord Byron stayed at Sidley Park.

Tom Stoppard's absorbing play takes us…


Book cover of Too Much Happiness

Sarah Hart Why did I love this book?

Too Much Happiness, the title story in a 2009 collection by Alice Munro, is a fictionalised account of the last days in the life of mathematician Sofya Kovalevskaya.

What really grabbed me was the way Munro managed to express, with wonderful economy, the way that Kovalevskaya’s acceptance as a woman mathematician in the 19th century felt conditional – she won prizes but had to fight to get a job; if she travelled for work people would allude to the daughter at home who might need her: “a jab there, a suggestion familiar to her, of faulty motherhood”.

It’s a beautiful and poignant portrayal of a complicated, brilliant woman. 

By Alice Munro,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Too Much Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

These are beguiling, provocative stories about manipulative men and the women who outwit them, about destructive marriages and curdled friendships, about mothers and sons, about moments which change or haunt a life. Alice Munro's stories surprise and delight, turning lives into art, expanding our world and shedding light on the strange workings of the human heart.


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Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

Betty Bolte Author Of Notes of Love and War

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Author Editor Traveler Crocheter Reader

Betty's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Magnolia Merryweather, a horse breeder, is eager to celebrate Christmas for the first time after the Civil War ended even as she grows her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after the terror of the past four years. Only, all of her plans are thrown into disarray when her secret lover returns and starts asking questions she can’t answer without disaster following.

Bryce Day comes home to Alabama after he’s discharged from the First Alabama Cavalry USA with guilt weighing on his heart. His neighbors won’t cotton to his Unionist bent, and the woman of his heart likely…

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

What is this book about?

One terrible lie, a desperate measure to save her past, just might destroy her future…

Award-winning author of historical fiction presents a new novel of love and lies, secrets and sensuality, and the hands of fate weaving it all together.

The American Civil War is finally over and Christmas beckons. Magnolia Merryweather, backyard horse breeder, is eager to celebrate for the first time since the war began even as she continues to grow her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after all the terror of the past four years. She’s preparing to follow in her mother’s matriarchal footsteps,…


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