Sci-fi and fantasy writers love populating their stories with towering geniuses. After all, nothing lends credence to a work of SFF like a brilliant mathematician or an ahead-of-their time scientist. But as fun as it is to see characters inspired by historical figures, it’s even more fascinating when authors take the real person and reimagine them within the context of SFF. Recasting mathematicians as demon hunters, analysts as steampunk spies, and even Greek scholars as superheroes heightens their already astonishing achievements and puts them on a grander scale. Here are our favorite books, comics, and movies featuring famous thinkers who made the leap from the pages of historical texts to fiction!
Hypatia of Alexandria was a teacher and scholar in 4th Century C.E. By about 400 C.E., she became the head of the Neoplatonist School, and taught philosophy and astronomy for mixed classes of pagans and Christians. She was especially interested in the design of astrolabes, but also may have edited her father Theon’s mathematical work. In the early 400s, Alexandria’s Roman governor Orestes began feuding with Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. At this point the city was a melting pot of different religions and cultures, and riots began to erupt along those lines, as people chose sides between the governor and the Bishop. At some point Hypatia was drawn into the conflict, and the scholar was attacked and murdered by a Christian mob.
Alan Moore took Hypatia’s story and tweaked it slightly to create an origin story for his Artist/Goddess/Superhero, Promethea. In Moore’s version, Hypatia is only a child when a Christian mob shows up at her door, and her father instructs her to flee into the desert. A fusion of Thoth and Hermes comes down to her, and offers her the chance to escape the coming Christian Empire by becoming a story. She accepts, and becomes Promethea. —Leah
Benoit Mandelbrot (Mandelbrot the Magnificent)
Where the rest of us see fractals spinning off into infinity, Benoit Mandelbrot saw minute pockets into parallel universes. Liz Ziemska’s magical pseudo-biography reimagines the mathematician’s childhood during Hitler’s rise to power: in an era where people like Mandelbrot’s family were fleeing their homes to escape the growing evil, young Benoit discovers secret dimensions in which to hide, all unlocked by math. Talk of Kepler’s ellipses transports Benoit; archetypal math problems about approaching infinity provide him with glimpses into mirror worlds in which he can hunt monsters. But as the monsters in his world abandon all pretense of peace, Mandelbrot must harness his gifts to hide his family, or else he’ll have sealed their fates. It’s a lovely example of using fantasy as a way to gild the edges of inspiring true stories, linking math with magic for non-mathematicians. —Natalie
Isaac Newton (The Baroque Cycle)
I read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle when it came out, back in ye olden times when we were generally more skeptical of Wikipedia. Being, shall we say, historically ignorant, I bought an actual heavy paper encyclopedia and would turn to it when I was uncertain whether one of his larger-than-life characters was in fact a historical person.
I didn’t need to look up Isaac Newton, whose feud with Leibniz about the invention of calculus plays a part in these books. One of Stephenson’s invented characters, Daniel Waterhouse (ancestor of Cryptonomicon’s Lawrence Waterhouse*, of course), gets tangled up in their argument, and in Newton’s life in general: Waterhouse and Newton drive half of the series’ plot, while the pirate Jack and the multitalented Eliza meander all over the world in another thread.
In the early chapters of Quicksilver, Stephenson offers Newton at different ages: a cleverly fractious boy; as Daniel’s roommate at college, tortured by his youth’s sins; and as a bananas experimenter who forgets to eat and sticks knitting needles in his eyeball. (OK, not in. Near. “Observe—don’t imagine!” he snaps at a panicked Daniel.) And that’s just in the first 100 pages of this massive series. Charismatic, tenacious, oblivious, fascinating, Newton is a pain in the ass, probably exhausting to be around—and kind of a rock star, whether focused on alchemy or, you know, running the Royal Mint. Just paging through this book to remind myself where it started makes me want to hang out with him for a few thousand pages again.
*Bonus: The younger Waterhouse, in Cryptonomicon, is pals with Alan Turing, who starts talking about Newton before that book’s first chapter is out. Stephenson really likes his mathematicians. —Molly
Nikola Tesla (The Prestige)
Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige was one of those movies that I went into with almost no information, which made its twists and misdirections especially enjoyable. But one of the best surprises of the movie is one of its most straightforward moments: David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, seeming to materialize from a space of crackling electricity as if it conjured him out of thin air. “Tesla was this other-worldly, ahead-of-his-time figure, and at some point it occurred to me he was the original Man Who Fell to Earth,” Nolan told EW in 2016, days after Bowie’s passing. “As someone who was the biggest Bowie fan in the world, once I made that connection, he seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part.” As Indiewire points out, the 2006 film was one of Bowie’s last major movie roles, with this otherworldly interpretation of Tesla acting as a perfect bookend to Thomas Jerome Newton. It was the first time that I had ever seen Tesla as a dramatic figure, and it basically sealed the deal that Bowie and Tesla would forever be intertwined in my mind. —Natalie
Ada Lovelace & Charles Babbage (2D Goggles, or, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage)
The daughter of poet Lord Byron and mathematical hobbyist Anne Isabella Milbanke, Lovelace considered herself an analyst and metaphysician. She became friends with Charles Babbage, a mathematician and engineer, and wrote an algorithm for Babbage’s unfinished Analytical Engine. Her algorithm is now considered the first computer program, though it was never tested, and nearly a century later Alan Turing used some of her ideas as counterpoints to his own research on artificial intelligence. (She also tried to create a mathematical model for placing bets, which unfortunately didn’t work, and she ran up some… impressive gambling debts.)
As the world caught up with the idea of computer science, her correspondence with Babbage was discovered, recognition of her work increased, and Ada Lovelace Day was founded to celebrate women in STEM fields. This day is what led to The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, a webcomic that recast the academic partners as a crime-fighting duo. Author Sydney Padua intended the strip as a one-off, but was so inundated with requests for more that she turned it into a series, and it was published as a graphic novel by Pantheon in 2015. (You can read Lovelace’s origin story here.) Lovelace and Babbage develop their Analytical Engine in an alternate, somewhat steampunky London, and take on a commission from Queen Victoria herself to fight crime (and aid the Queen in her imperialist desires). But what’s most impressive is just how much biography Padua weaves into a thrilling adventure tale, including snarky references to Mr. Turing, riffs on Babbage’s outsized personality, and tons of perfectly detailed Victoriana. —Leah
Sofya Kovalevskaya (Against the Day)
Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day pulls off the author’s usual doorstopping, decade-spanning tricks. The action stretches from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 all the way into the 1920s, and hops from labor disputes in Colorado to the glamour of Hollywood’s silent era, from Tunguska to London. It also contains cameos by Tesla (again) and an appearance by a remarkable female mathematician named Sofya Kovalevskaya. The rumor about the book prior to publication was that it would follow the life of Kovalevskaya, who entered into a fake marriage in order to study math outside of Russia, and who later presented a doctoral dissertation at the university of Gottingen—despite not being allowed to attend classes there—that led to her becoming the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics—summa cum laude, no less. She became a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Stockholm before being promoted to full professor in 1889. She was on the editorial board of the mathematical journal Acta Mathematica, and in 1888 became both the first woman to be elected a “corresponding member” of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Sciences. The finished novel featured Kovalevskaya as a small character, but also had two fictional mathematicians, Kit Traverse (who travels through time a bit) and the bisexual Yashmeen Halfcourt (who can walk through walls), who was supposedly modeled on Kovalevskaya. —Leah
Albert Einstein (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence)
OK, so the computer terminal that answers question’s in A.I. isn’t really Albert Einstein, but Dr. Know is certainly modeled on him. And it’s not all that surprising either, as Einstein had a look and personality that makes him ideal for fictional adaptation. The hair, the propensity for sticking out his tongue in photographs, the dedication to the pursuit of knowledge while simultaneously not being much of a school nerd. Einstein was a scientist, but his interest in the world at large makes him the perfect candidate to be an avatar for what is essentially a talking encyclopedia (played by Robin Williams, to boot). —Emily
Tesla, Edison, Rosalind Franklin, Charles Babbage, et al (Hark! A Vagrant)
While Kate Beaton’s caricatures often extend toward literary figures like Jane Austen and occasionally comic book players like Lois Lane, she riffs on more than a few STEM figures. Like the unflappable Rosalind Franklin above, or Tesla as a celibate rock star. Check out the Hark! A Vagrant archives and enjoy for yourself.