Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Short Stories about Math? YES!





Fantasia Mathematica – Clifton Fadiman, Ed. (1958)


            Having just finished a dense and rigorous philosophical treatise, I needed something which would spark my imagination and my intellect.  I found this collection of math-based and math-referencing stories, most of them under 10 pages long, and proceeded to escape into science fiction.
            Clifton Fadiman, the editor of this collection, was inspired to collect this anthology after reading a few short stories that used mathematics as either a plot point or as a crucial element of the characterization.  In 1958 the genre of science fiction was still obscure and marginalized.  Because of this, many of these stories were published once in pulp magazines and then forgotten.  Some of them are from the very masters of the genre, such as Heinlein, Clarke or Bradbury, while others are from writers that have faded into obscurity.
            I remember picking this book up maybe 20 years ago and not finding it interesting enough to finish.  I guess in the intervening decades I have either picked up more mathematical knowledge or I have grown more adult and capable of enjoying a story purely for the intellectual curiosity of it.  Most of these short stories are great fun, and many illustrate mathematical points which are still explored by today’s mathematicians.  Topics range from topology, to extra-dimensional geometry, to geometric proofs.  There is even a back section which contains mathematical poems, limericks, and other such things.
            My favorite story of the bunch involves a mathematician making a bet with the Devil, all dependent on the Devil answering properly whether Fermat’s Last Theorem is true or not.  This conjecture was unsolved for centuries until a lone-wolf mathematician provided a suitable proof.  I have no idea what the math used was, but then again, neither does 99.999% of the population!  At the end of the tale, the Devil sits befuddled, beaten, and sad.  He spent his time learning all the highly complex math required to even tackle Fermat’s Last Theorem, and was not able to comprehend how to go about solving it.  Math wins.

(To read A Subway Named Mobius, one of the short stories from this volume, please click here: http://westongeometry.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/61244911/SubwayNamedMobius.pdf )

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