Sunday, November 08, 2009

Anathem, and mathematical stereotypes

Neal Stephenson is (or should be !) a familiar figure in the sci-fi/speculative fiction landscape: his Cryptonomicon is a retelling of the story of Turing, along with much modern day drama involving advanced crypto and security. His new book, Anathem, came out with much fanfare, and is a vast tale set in a place where mathematics is a pursuit conducted in monastery-like places with strong religious overtones.

I'm reading Anathem right now, and am only at the beginning (so no spoilers please), but there's already a beautifully rendered discourse on stereotypes of the mathematican (or scientist in general). Inside the 'concent' (the monastery), these are termed 'Iconographies', as formal templates by which to understand how the "saecular" world perceives the mathematicians. I was reminded of this when writing I was writing the post on Soviet-style mathematics and realized the stereotypes at the heart of the referenced WSJ article.

So here are some of the iconographies discussed early on (you get one point for each one that you've encountered in real life):
  • Tennestrian: seemingly clownish eccentric figures that have a darker side, luring impressionables and innocents into folly (a play on the story of Socrates)
  • Doxan: brilliant, unemotional and cold, but as a consequence subordinate to passionate leaders with true human feeling. (can you say 'Spock'?)
  • Yorran: Criminally insane mad scientist shut up in a lab with plans to conquer the world.
  • Rhetorian: Sinister conspiracy plotters, out to take over the world by planting minions out in the secular world to attain positions of power.
  • Muncostran: Eccentric, lovable, dishevelled theoreticians, absent-minded and good-natured (the subtext being: ignorable)
  • Pendarthan: High-strung nervous meddling know-it-alls, unable to understand the realities of life, always subordinate to more 'masculine' (his words, not mine) secular folk.
  • Klevan: Awesomely wise elder statesman who can solve all the problems of the world (apart from Einstein, I don't know of anyone who achieves such stature in our world)
  • Baudan: Cynical frauds living in luxury at the expense of the common man (this sounds like the viewpoint of letter-writers to the Salt Lake Tribune)
  • Penthabrian: keepers of mystical secrets handed down from above, with 'theory' as a smokescreen used to fool the lay folk (if only...)
  • Moshianic: A combination of Klevan and Penthabrian - viewed as the most dangerous iconograph because of the high expectations placed on the theorist shoulders.

It's a neat trick to identify the ways in which the outside world perceives the 'theors', as they are called, and in doing so understand where the outsider is coming from, and what kind of threat they pose. I suspect I'm going to start classifying people in "the real world" the same way when I describe what I do.


  1. I'm halfway through myself. It's quite an engrossing read, although I still can't figure out who he's attacking.

  2. I thought Anathem was one of his better books. You asked for no spoilers, so I'll just say this: pay attention to the digressions. I had the impression they were better connected to the storyline than, say, in Cryptonomicon. Sure, van Eck phreaking came back, but the bits about furniture fetish or Captain Crunch felt a little like self-indulgence.


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