The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Reflections by Steve Maurer

I highly recommend a general audience book that will surely appeal strongly to almost every mathematician. If you have not already read it, you have a treat in store. I refer to Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time".

To everyone's surprise, including the author's, the book has become a best seller. I believe I read that half a million copies are in print. It first appeared in England over 2 years ago and a few days ago it was 29th on US Amazon's sales list. As such, there already are many reviews and interviews with the author. But there has been very little discussion of the mathematical issues raised by the book, even by the author.

A brief general summary of the book: It is a 1st person narrative by Christopher, a 15-year old English boy with Asperger syndrome. He finds his neighbor's dog killed and decides to do "detecting" to find the murderer. He is very verbal and logical, but nearly clueless about human emotions and motivations, and easily overwhelmed by too much sense data when anything new happens. He solves his mystery, but he hardly notices or cares that he wakes up many other sleeping dogs in the process. The book is fascinating because it's a good mystery, because we see so much more than the narrator, and because in the process we learn about a medical condition deserving of understanding. (Christofer's condition is not given a name in the book, but he attends a special needs school, and a little research does show that Asperger's is an appropriate diagnosis. Asperger's is sometimes said to be "high-end autism".)

But - and here's what the general press doesn't emphasize - this is also a book about math. Christopher is near precocious in mathematics, and math is his favorite subject and his source of strength on which he falls back when the world is too much. Indeed, a friend of the author told him, "This not a book about Asperger's; it's about a young mathematician with behavioural issues."

As such, mathematicians will be especially sympathetic to Christopher, and will also find the book much funnier than most people (in a laugh-with-Christopher way) because Christopher's behavior is clearly an exaggeration (or should I say extension) of behaviors not so uncommon to mathematicians. For instance, Christopher likes to explain his reasons, even when they are obvious. He likes to be very precise. When he latches on to something, he pursues it single-mindedly. When he gets upset, he calms down by thinking about math, say, computing the powers of 2 in his head - much farther than I can. Throughout the book, he describes and explains several mathematical puzzles. And one of the few jokes he understands, and tells in the book, is my favorite mathematician joke (about a train going through a country with sheep). I had never seen it in print before (although I also think I tell it better than Christopher does). It's impressive that the author knew all these things, given that he was an Oxford English major. But it turns out (from interviews) that he was at times in his life a secret mathophile.

So, I think you will especially like this book, if you are mathematically inclined. I thought it was hilarious, at the same time that it was gripping and sad. I saw a little of me in it, as did my wife.

But another issue is: is this book good or bad for the public image of mathematics? That's an important point if half a million people have read it. A considerable amount of math is explained, and Christopher likes math and most readers will like Christopher. And yet, in this book math is once again associated with illness; people who like math are not quite right. The same author's friend quoted above then said "if Christopher was real, he'd go on to have a perfectly adequate place in any maths department, and be surrounded by people not very different from himself." I doubt this is really right, and mathematicians should be aware that this is a view non-mathematics readers might come away with. You should be prepared to disagree, if the book comes up in casual conversation.

Do you remember detective George Frankly from the MathNet parody of Dragnet within the PBS math program Square One? This show was on when my kids were young and I watched it with them. Frankly was a little cookoo too; he was literal minded and explained the obvious. I loved Frankly but I also wondered if Frankly was good or bad for the public image of mathematics. I am hopeful that both Frankly and Christopher do more good than bad.

Another issue that occurred to me. Suppose Christopher showed up as a first-year student at Swarthmore. How would he manage and how would we manage? When special needs students show up (for instance, we currently have a major who is paraplegic, and another potential major with Tourette's syndrome) the dean's office lets us know in advance. I think that with considerable effort - I've been imagining what some of that would be -- effort I think we would be willing to make, we could make him moderately at home here. But it would never be easy, despite Christopher's upbeat tone at the end of the novel.

The author got math "right" in the book. (Well, with one exception; see the PS below.) Did he also get Asberger's right? Turns out he spent several years working with special needs people after graduating from Oxford, though he then switched to writing for TV. The Manchester Guardian has a review of his book by as Asperber's teenager who says he did get it right.

Finally, I didn't actually read the book. Fran and I listened to an unabridged tape as we drove up to Vermont on a recent vacation. It is about 6 hours, an excellent spoken book for a long drive. The spoken version has a great advantage for non-Brits. The speaker did a wonderful job of every conceivable British accent; I would have missed this reading the book. On the other hand, the printed book actually has a proof as an appendix (a proof of a purported A-level problem that Christopher really liked). The spoken version left this out.

If at some point you are interested in some interviews with Haddon, look at

http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/interviews/article74799.ece

http://www.powells.com/authors/haddon.html

For a description of Asperger Syndrome, see

http://www.udel.edu/bkirby/asperger

For the review by an Asperger kid, see

http://books.guardian.co.uk/whitbread2003/story/0,14026,1135593,00.html

PS Christopher likes astronomy too, and at one point talks about the stargazer disks you can use to see what is in the heavens at any date and time (given the latitude). There is a disk that rotates showing all the stars ever visible at that latitude, covered over by a sheet with a large aperture, through which you see the currently visible starts. Haddon has Christopher refer to that aperature as a parabola. No! It is an oval, by which I mean a general ellipsoidal shape but not an exact ellipse. This is something I know something about, because I got fascinated by these devices in 8th grade, figured out the mathematics of them (projections in a spherical system) and with a trig table and paper calculation created apertures for various latitudes. A few years ago, I did the whole thing again in 15 minutes and a few Mathematica commands instead of weeks of work. It's easy to see the question is nontrivial, because if you are at the north pole the aperture is a circle, and if you are at the equator is is a semicircle. Inbetween it is some morph of the two.

Aug 5 2005