Mathematics in Classic Literature

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is at least as complicated and full of ideas as any “space-opera”, so it should not be surprising to find this on its pages:  “if God exists and if He really did create the world, then, as we all know, He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space.  Yet there have been and still are geometers and philosophers, and even some of the most distinguished, who doubt whether the whole universe, or to speak more widely, the whole of being, was only created in Euclid’s geometry; they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity.  I have come to the conclusion that, since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God.”

Dostoyevsky published this work in 1880 so he was well aware of non-Euclidean geometry, which developed in the early 19th century as Bolyoi, a Hungarian, and the Russian mathematician Lobachevsky, created hyperbolic geometry, and later Riemann created elliptic geometry.  Still, it surprised me to find the parallel postulate mentioned in this classic.  Then there is the line about “only three dimensions in space.”  Obviously before any hints about Einstein’s “space-time.”  And finally, I was struck by “if God exists and if He really did create the world.”  The novel is jammed packed with religion and philosophy, all wrapped inside Russian Orthodoxy and European atheism.  What kind of cosmos did Dostoyevsky imagine in which God exists and yet did not create the world?  That sounds like an interesting setting for some future sci-fi.

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