The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics

The Dot and the Line by Norton JusterLove stories abound, even in the world of Mathematics. Mathematics may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of romance, but it does boast its fair share of romantic dramas. Norton Juster took the time to document one such love story in “The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics”. As in all love stories, there are well constructed characters, although these particular characters cannot claim to be multi-facetted. Meet the “him”: a boring, straight line. There is the “her”: a gorgeous dot. And then there is “the competition”: the bad-boy squiggle. Line falls for dot, but squiggle gets in the way. What is line to do when dot gets tangled up with squiggle? Mathematics holds the key, and line is determined to unlock the solution to his problem.

“The Dot and the Line” was published in 1963, and turned into a short film (shown below) in 1965. Apparently, Norton Juster found inspiration in the mathematics fiction classic “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” (1884).  “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” was written by an English school teacher named Dr Edwin Abbott. The story plays out in a two-dimensional world where women are simple line segments and men are the more complicated polygons. It may sound like the kind of geometry lesson that will put hairs on the chest of any women’s libber, but you won’t know for sure until you read it. “Flatland” is a lot more than mathematics in an easy-to-read, story format, yet it remains best known for how it opens up the concept of dimensions and challenges us to explore new perspectives. Sadly, this quaint book went largely unnoticed until Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity (in which the fourth dimension of time plays a significant role) was published in 1915. Thankfully, someone mentioned this extraordinary book in the same Nature article as Einstein was mentioned (1920), and “Flatland” rose to join other mathematical works of note. I discovered “Flatland” many years ago in the basement of a university library, and hope many more students had the curiosity to pull this book from the dusty shelf after me. If you have not read “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions”, do yourself a favor and borrow or buy a copy.

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