One of the most striking things about Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson was the fact that the novel's text was full of mathematical formulas.

In some ways, this approach resembles, for example, inclusion of in-depth military technology porn in Clancy-esque technothrillers. But mathematical formulas seem to take this "professional knowledge" approach to a wholly separate level.

Is there a tradition of including actual formulas in fiction books that deal with mathematically inclined characters and events and subjects? Or was Stephenson's work groundbreaking in that respect?

2 Answers 2


When it was published, Cryptonomicon was often compared to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which is also set during WWII and (to a much lesser extent than Cryptonomicon) the present day, has a technology-centered plot (to the extent it has a plot at all), and explores themes of the relationships between individuals, society, and technology.

Calculus and statistics are frequently referred to throughout GR, but especially in the first section, which is set in London during the time that it was being attacked by V2 rockets. In one episode, a statistician works on a mathematical model of the frequency of rocket hits across London. They have divided London into a grid of squares, and counted hits within each square:

But to the likes of employees such as Roger Mexico it is music, not without its majesty, this power series Ne^-m(1 + m + m^2/2! + m^3/3! + ... + m^(n-1)/(n-1)!), terms numbered according to rocket falls per square, the Poisson dispensation ruling not only these annihilations no man can run from, but also cavalry accidents, blood counts, radioactive decay, number of wars per year....
--Viking edition, pp 139–40

The equations that describe the flight of a ballistic missile are brought up frequently -- the title itself refers to the parabola of the missile's flight, and the idea of being on the cusp of some radical change ("a delta-t away") comes up throughout, sometimes in rather poetic ways.

Here's a scene where the main character (to the extent that there is one) is reading up on the V2's technical specs:

So was the Rocket's terrible passage reduced, literally, to bourgeois terms, terms of an equation such as that elegant blend of philosophy and hardware, abstract change and hinged pivots of real metals which describes motion under the aspect of yaw control:
[here follows a multi-term differential equation],
preserving, possessing, steering between Scylla and Charybdis the whole way to Brennschluss.
--p. 239

Other technical matter that comes up throughout involves the engineering of the underground railroad system at the Nordhausen V2 factory; organic chemistry; Pavlovian conditioning of canines, humans, and octopi; and the life expectancy of light bulbs.

  • @TheBitByte anything in particular you think could use sources/substantiation?
    – Kevin Troy
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 18:18
  • Maybe I missed it and it was written somewhere, but what do you think is the origin as requested by OP? Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 18:31

In Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, 'Pataphysicien (transl. Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician), written by Alfred Jarry (of Ubu Roi fame) in 1898 but published in 1911, contains as last chapter (before the Speculations) a chapter called 'De la Surface de Dieu' (transl. On the Surface of God) which contains formulas and a supposed demonstration that 'god is the tangential point between zero and infinity' (it is probably necessary at this point of the discussion to specify that it is a 'pataphysic novel, a literary absurdist style invented by Jarry which influenced dadaism and surrealism).

This chapter itself is one of many 'scientific'-sounding chapters at the end of the novel and is supposed to be part of a 'telepathic letter' from the main character (Dr. Faustroll) to Lord Kelvin, in which Faustroll solves several philosophical problems using his new "science", the 'Pataphysics.

  • That thing about God sounds to me, especially given the title of the chapter, like a reference to the ancient description (going back at least to the 13th century, maybe much further) of God as a "sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere". So I wouldn't blame its oddity entirely on Jarry's absurdism. Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 13:29
  • (Though the mathematics in the chapter is certainly absurd.) Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 13:31
  • I wan't aware of this 13th Century theory: this is indeed interesting and it is indeed not improbable that Jarry was aware of it, and playing with it a bit.
    – plannapus
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 13:37
  • Not only the math is absurd but there are some clear humorous bits (making it clear that the whole chapter is a big joke) such as p. 121: "Definition: God is the shortest path from zero to Infinity. In which direction? would you ask. We'll answer that his first name is not Jules but Plus-or-Minus. And that one shall say: +/- God is the shortest path from 0 to infinity."
    – plannapus
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 13:41

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