TORCH Annual Headline Series 2014-15: Humanities and Science

This series of Panel discusisons will focus on the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, exploring how new answers can be found – and new research questions can be set – by bringing the disciplines together.

January 21, 2015

TORCH: Narrative & Proof

Maths has its own language and narrative doesn't it: E = mc2, Fermat's Theorem, Fibonacci's numbers etc? But last night as part of the TORCH Humanities and Science discussions Marcus du Sautoy argued that mathematical proofs equate to literary narrative. His contention was that a good proof embodies a good story and he found that the definition of narrative archetypes parallel mathematical proofs. He also postulated that narrative literature has mathematical form too: novels need structure and symmetry and novelists have to account for and tie up loose ends. However, he did acknowledge that there were some areas, most particularly time, where the two are dissimilar - time is a quintessential part of story-telling but is absent in mathematical proofs.

Ben Okri, as an award-winning writer, naturally had a different view point. Although he recognised that the logic of story-telling could equate to the structure of mathematical proofs he felt that literary narrative went beyond the confines of mathematical expression particularly in relation to human consciousness. He explained his belief that literary narrative explores the enigma of being human and maths can demystify some but not all aspects of this inscrutability. In a cogent and reflective argument he summarized his position by stating that he felt that proof and narrative were children of the same parents.

As a long-established physicist Professor Sir Roger Penrose was unsurprisingly uncomfortable with some of the parallels drawn by Prof de Sautoy. He agreed that a good narrative is essential to a good DPhil but no amount of accomplished prose will compensate for a flaw in a mathematical proof. He felt that maths is constrained by reality and this is not the case with literary narrative although he acknowledged that like a proof narrative does need consistent, internal logic and he recognised that both proof and narrative have "beauty". He accepted that there are connections and similarities between proof and narrative but highlighted the necessity for mathematical proofs to be right. He felt that literary narrative worked by a different set of rules.

Laura Marcus acknowledged some of the commonality between proof and narrative discussed by Prof du Sautoy and agreed with Prof Penrose's view that mathematical proofs have beauty in their narrative and discursive elements. However, whilst she felt that some mathematical ideas and principles are integral to narrative these did not necessarily constitute proofs and she was particularly keen to explore the idea of meaning vs proof and pointed the audience to a number of literary narratives from Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology to Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, where these ideas have been explored.

The discussion was then opened up for questions from the audience who raised pertinent issues regarding truth (a proof has to be true but a narrative does not); the narrative of discovery (proofs lead to a clear, crystalline conclusion but narratives often embody uncertainty) and finally the importance of personal interpretation, subjectivity vs objectivity (literary narrative is not absolute whereas proofs should not be ambiguous). During the panel discussions, a great many names and works of renown were bandied round in support of the arguments: Borges, Fermat, Barthés, Hawking, Wiles, Gödel, Stoppard, Beckett, Abbott and Catton to name a few and these references pointed to a rich vein of background material to explore. No unequivocal conclusions were drawn but this panel clearly laid the foundations of a very thought-provoking argument and for further food for thought I would recommend attending any of the remaining discussions in this headline series.

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