Imagining a Hit Thriller With Number 'e'

ByABC News
July 1, 2004, 2:59 PM

July 4, 2004 -- Specific numbers sometimes play a role in fiction. Witness the novel The Da Vinci Code, where the number is the Golden Ratio symbolized by the Greek letter phi, or the movie Pi, where the number is pi, of course.

The Da Vinci Code, a thriller offering an alternative view of various conundrums in Western history ranging from the Holy Grail to Mona Lisa's smile, is dependent on the decoding power of phi and the Fibonacci numbers. Pi is about a numerologically obsessed mathematician who thinks he's found the secret to just about everything in the decimal expansion of pi and is pursued by religious zealots, greedy financiers, and others.

Reflecting on the use of these numbers in fiction, I wondered how a number that doesn't get as much attention as phi or pi might serve as a plot element in a mystery. The number does not have a Greek name, but must make do with a simple moniker e. The base of the natural logarithm and truly one of the most important numbers in all of mathematics, e is approximately 2.71828182845904 (approximately because its decimal expansion continues without repetition).

The first part of an e-based story might briefly sketch the theoretical importance of e, its role in finance, number theory, physics, geometry, and so on. The number might then pop up inexplicably. Here are some possibilities.

I. A thriller about outer space. The physicist Robert Matthews has recently written that, looked at in the right way, the night sky contains the signature of the number pi. Looked at in a different way, the sky also reflects the number e.