The literary potential of author names

In an age where literary originality is hard to come by, shouldn’t more attention be paid to the great potential of author’s names as literary device? In mathematics, we can enjoy the delightful papers of Nicolas & Sárközy (for instance, this one). Theoretical physicists probably still chuckle when reading the paper of Alpher, Bethe and Gamow (though the story goes that Alpher was pretty upset when Gamow decided to add Bethe as a co-author, purely for euphonical reasons…)

Do you know any other examples?

(As for myself, I am sorry that the traditions of mathematical publication make it highly unlikely that a Stanley — Kowalski paper will ever appear.)

Zazie count

So after re-reading carefully Zazie au pot de thèse, I have counted 74 references to mathematical terminology, including names of actual mathematicians (a few of which are actually hidden in puns which can be considered as Joycean or atrocious, depending on the point of view), and words which are used for their mathematical meaning in the text; this seems fair enough since, after all, the story is supposed to happen during (or mostly after) a mathematical PhD defence.

The best-hidden name (the construction being utterly untranslatable) is in the following sentence:

Il faut préserver les plus infimes de nos coutumes obsolètes, car nous, Gaulois irréductibles, sans us, perdrions notre esprit de corps, notre unité fondamentale.

(Litterally: We must preserve the most minute of our obsolete habits, since we, irreducible Gauls, without customs, would lose our esprit de corps, our fundamental unity.)

The mathematician here is Galois, seen as “Gaulois-without-us”; the surroundings of field and Galois-theoretic wordings (irreducible, fundamental unit, field – which is the translated “corps” in French) were supposed to make this noticeable…


My favorite French novel is “Zazie dans le métro”, by Raymond Queneau. I won’t go into detailed literary criticism to explain why, though the amazing inventivity of the language is one reason, but mention only that the fact that Queneau is well-known to have had a lively interest in mathematics is certainly another factor (there are not many mathematical traces in this book, though there is a very nice sentence, which I can’t locate at the moment, which mixes elliptic, parabolic and hyperbolic…).

Parenthetically, Queneau’s interest was shared by all the writers of the OULIPO group, the best known of whom is probably G. Perec. Perec is the author of the book-without-e “La disparition”, but he also wrote an absolutely hilarious pastiche of a scientific paper (not a mathematical one) entitled Cantratrix Sopranica L.” (which you really should read if you have never seen it; it’s in English). Even the bibliography is a jewel, as shown by the citation of a paper by “Einstein, Zweistein, Dreistein, Vierstein et Saint Pierre”. Note that this mathematical interest actually makes plausible the claim (which I have just seen on the web) that Grothendieck played a small role in L. Malle’s film version of “Zazie…”.

Coming back to “Zazie…”, when, to celebrate a friend’s PhD defense in Orsay in 1998, I decided to write a short story with the intention of cramming it with as many mathematical terms as I could in a non-professional context, I chose to imitate Queneau’s masterpiece, and make use of his characters Zazie, of the famously free vocabulary, and her uncle Gabriel, amateur of “sirop de grenadine” and, in the evening, dancer in a transvestite cabaret in Paris.

The resulting text is here; I will leave it as an exercise to find all the hidden mathematical terminology. The counts you may reach might not be the same as mine (which I will include in a follow-up after re-reading the text carefully, since I don’t remember it…). For instance, I don’t think I knew that “net” was a terme de métier when I wrote this text, and other instances yet unknown to me might lurk in it. As a teaser, I will mention “Eh quoi, si on élit P. Tique…”, which really must be read “Équation elliptique” (elliptic equation), and “Et les uns poussaient en avant, et les autres tiraient en arrière” (and some pushed forward, and some pulled back), which should be self-explanatory.