Thursday, October 29, 2015

Château Soleil Update 7: Doing The Math

Current word count: 70,013
Chapters done: 24/52
Projected length: 151,695 words

Wrapping up the first half. I've got about two chapters left, but I've gone a little out of order, and you may notice how small the projected total has gotten. I'll have more to say about that in my next update. For now, I want to talk about math.

Don't run away screaming just yet.

This is important for my current project, because one of the major characters is a mathematician, and I just wrote a scene where she* has to save the day using geometry. She was using a metric that gave a rough figure for distance in order to triangulate in on a person (although within a three-dimensional structure, so... "quad-rangulate"?). I didn't want to diffuse the tension by getting bogged down by the actual numbers. On the other hand, I did want to treat the math seriously and treat the inexactness of her calculations as a serious liability in their search. So when numbers were called for, I used very round ones. And instead of focusing on the calculations, I instead focused on the shape of the data and how that translated into a visualizable geometric model, and how the holes in her data would hurt her model. 

Hopefully, this will be engaging to non-mathy reader but has enough candy for math people to appreciate it as well. It was definitely a different kind of challenge.

I studied math in college, and I'm seldom happy with the way it's treated in movies and books. In general, in pop culture, mathematicians demonstrate their mathy-ness by doing complicated calculations in their heads (see Samuel L. Jackson's character in Sphere). When math becomes important to the plot, it does so in magical ways, as in the movie Pi. Or it's treated as a hand-wavy plot advancer, as in Jurassic Park's myriad meaningless discussions of Chaos Theory. None of this is bad, per se, it just feels extra fictiony to me and tends to take me out of the story.

In real life, math involves a great deal of estimation. When exact calculations are needed, they would be done using a computer, but a mathematician would also have done a quick-and-dirty estimate in his or her head to make sure that the number the computer spits out makes sense. The other important thing a mathematician brings is an interpretation of what the numbers mean. If you want to see both of these done well: Tom Hanks does some math in Cast Away on the wall of his cave, figuring out the area that rescuers would have to search to find him. He uses judicious estimation to get to his numbers quickly, and then contextualizes them for the audience. The actual area as a number is meaningless. "Half the size of Texas" makes it more real.


*Yes, "she"

No comments: