mathematical fiction

We had friends over for dinner, and the subject of creativity came up. Somebody suggested that the Mathematician’s job was just as creative in nature as mine, at which I balked.

Me: You solve problems.

Mathematician: Which requires creative thinking.

Me: Listen, bub. Your idea of a good time is a knotty algorithm. Your problem solving and my invention of a world out of thin air? Not the same thing. Not that I could solve an algorithm. Or know what an algorithm is, even.

Mathematician: An algorithm is basically a recipe. You create an algorithm in order to solve a specific problem.

Our friends thought that was a great definition but the fact remains: I still don’t know what an algorithm is, and I can’t picture it. Flour + sugar + butter: shortbread. Bush + Cheney + Cowardly Congress: Patriot Act. Those are recipes. But a recipe to solve a problem? In fiction?

Problem: The titanic is going down.


Problem: Character X is terrified of character Z finding out the Truth.


This might mean that (1) algorithms are limited in the kinds of problems they can solve; (2) my brain is simply resistant to the concept of the algorithm. But consider this: can an algorithm build an entire universe?  An algorithm is something constructed in response to a question, if I understand the definition correctly. Creativity is coming up with the question to start with. I rest my case.