A Curious Incident

A Curious Incident
Dan Rockmore

The most curious moment in the math-riddled Broadway hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (adapted from Mark Haddon's best-selling novel of the same name) has nothing to do with the dog, which (spoiler alert!) confronts you at the beginning of the play, appearing briefly, a lumpen furry blob with a pitchfork in its side. Rather the oddest scene is at the end and isn't really properly part of the play. In a surprising afterward, with most of the crowd still on its feet having just cheered the bravura performance of the cast and beginning to make their way toward the exits, the performer who has taken on the challenging lead role of Christopher Boone (generally, the newcomer Alex Sharp, but also at regular if less frequent intervals Taylor Frensch) returns to the stage. Still in character he comes back to explain one small plot point elided in the performance -- the particular math problem that Christopher needed to solve to receive the top grade of "A*" on the math "level A's" exam that would be proof of his mathematical prowess and thus, he hopes rescue him from his difficult family life and set him on a course for a career as a mathematician and personal happiness.

With the audience just on the edges of the theatre-wide dreamscape that a fine play creates, Christopher proceeds to explain his proof of a lovely little fact in number theory -- the mathematics of understanding the relationships of numbers -- that makes use of the famous Pythagorean Theorem, the statement that for any right triangle (think of the half of a rectangle formed by slicing it along its diagonal) the number you get by squaring the length of its longest side (the hypotenuse) is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides (the length and width of that original rectangle). In fact, Christopher proves the Pythagorean Theorem, in Ted-talk style and on the way to proving his A-levels theorem. The hushed crowd bursts into another standing ovation at the final QED moment of this math encore. I've given and seen a lot of math lectures and I can't say I've ever seen a reaction like that -- although I understand that this was the reception that Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem (a generalization of the Pythagorean Theorem -- clearly a crowd-pleaser!) received something like that, albeit from a much smaller and more specialized audience.

This isn't the first time math has helped support the spine of gripping and popular drama. Math-centric hits include Mary Louise Parker in the layered mystery Proof, Alan Alda in the Feynman bio-play QED, Tom Stoppard's exploration of chaos Arcadia, and Copenhagen, a play that spins on the uncertainty of the contribution of Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg's contribution to the failed Nazi nuclear weapons effort. Each of these works strike me as examples of varying degrees of something of a subgenre -- or perhaps the only genre -- of math-themed theatre, stories that hinge on the juxtaposition of the certainty and clarity of mathematical truth alongside the messiness and pervasive coexisting contradictions that make up real life.

This is a theme that is front and center in Curious Incident. Christopher's "home" that is the stage is itself an artfully, but explicitly Cartesian space -- like a collaboration between Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt and Philip Johnson. Making sense of relationships between the Platonic objects that are numbers is the easy stuff for Christopher. Triangulating the relationships among his small family constellation, not to mention the world at large is near to impossible, a point that is amplified Christopher's characterization as a person with autism. The twinning of a skill with numbers and a difficulty in navigating the complexities of social interactions seems to be standard fare in "mathematertainment." From the Oscar-winning Alan Turing biopic Imitation Game to Curious Incident, not to mention the number one-rated sitcom Big Bang Theory and even the HBO upstart Silicon Valley, about a compression algorithm (!) based start-up, all these shows share to varying degrees, beyond backdrops of integral signs, x's and Greek letters is the mathematician as social misfit.

It's curious that this connection is so sticky. In truth, thinking deeply about a math problem, can disconnect you from the outside world. I learned a long time ago, that I couldn't talk to one of my mathematician friends about math when he was driving, because as he started to think about the problem, he would forget to continue to give gas to the car -- even on the highway. Another mathematician once remarked to me that after thinking for several weeks about a problem, she found it difficult to talk to people for a while, for as she said, " I had just been having a relationship with a math problem, and that's very different from having a relationship with a person." Indeed!

The cartoon of the absent-minded scholar goes back at least as far as the legend of a naked Archimedes running the streets of Ithaca screaming "Eureka" after his epiphany in the bathtub or the slightly wacky form of asceticism practiced by Pythagoras (there he is again!) and is followers. It is a caricature that was perhaps solidified in the media with the publicity and global fame of Albert Einstein, who may have done quite a bit even to cultivate this image. This, despite his deep engagement with the real world and its many problems and challenges.

Maybe it's a "revenge against the nerds" kind of labeling. In fact, in our data-driven world where being a "numbers person," can be a golden ticket to employment opportunity and business success, we generally see a wide range of social "types" pursuing mathematically-based degrees and professions. That said, there is still a distressing lack of diversity here. For example, there are still too few women obtaining advanced degrees in the mathematical and computer sciences and populating academia in these areas, some of which has been attributed to a social stigma attached to mathematical aptitude that is amplified in popular culture.

These are real concerns and individuals, as well as math departments and technology companies around the country and the world are working to correct these impressions. To that end, once the show is truly over and the crowd makes its way through and over the confetti that accompanies Christopher's final and joyful mathematical pronouncement, we have a theater-going crowd walking out onto the street talking about math and using the words "Pythagorean theorem" and "amazing" in the same sentence. Eventually, something good is going to come of that.