Study Finds Mathematical Structure in Great Literature

Posted on January 28, 2016

Multifractal analysis of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

A new study reveals that the world's greatest literature is actually math based. Using advanced statistical techniques scientists from Poland's Institute of Nuclear Physics studied 100 works of classic literature using advanced statistical techniques. They discovered that the works that have stood the test of time are actually fractals, an ideal mathematical pattern found in nature. Some are actually multifractals.

The scientists studied 100 works of great literature in a variety of genres and languages. Works used in the included works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Honre de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleaxander Dumasn, Umberto Eco, George Elliot, James Joyce, Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, JRR Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. By studying the characteristics of the sentences, such as sentence length variability, the scientists discovered a beautiful, mathematical complexity in the works which resembles that in nature. The results also indicated that sentence analysis can be used to determine the genre of the work, without reading the book.

Some of the works which utilized stream of consciousness displayed patterns seen in multifractals: that is fractals of fractals. The most perfect multifractal measured was James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which is regarded by some as a masterpiece and by others as unintelligible nonsense. But not all stream of consciousness works were multifractals: Ann Rand's work failed to reveal the beauty of multifractals. But Virginia Woolfe's The Waves did. Other multifractal works included Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Julio Cortazar's Rayuela by Julio Cortazar, and Roberto Bolano's 2666. The only work which tested out as a multifractal but is not considered an example of stream of consciousness is the Old Testament of the Bible.

The research raises the question: does a great writer have the unconscious ability to intuit the structure of the physical universe and turn it into fiction or a compelling nonfiction narrative? And what's all this about being able to determine the genre of a work just by statistical analysis?

Professor Drozdz discussed the implications of his work saying, "It is not entirely clear whether stream of consciousness writing actually reveals the deeper qualities of our consciousness, or rather the imagination of the writers. It is hardly surprising that ascribing a work to a particular genre is, for whatever reason, sometimes subjective. We see, moreover, the possibility of an interesting application of our methodology: it may someday help in a more objective assignment of books to one genre or another."

The research paper was published in the computer science journal Information Sciences. You can read more about the research findings. here.

Sequences of sentence lengths in four major works

Images: IFJ PAN