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Disciple of the Masses (2008)
Xujun Eberlein

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A pathos-filled short story set in rural China toward the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It captures beautifully the sense of loss inherent in a centrally-directed and enforced revolution, with the implicit question: “How may great minds did Mao’s vision destroy?”

Shanzi is a highly gifted student who excels at math – she frequently pretends not to know the answer when she did so as not to show down her classmates. All expectations around her are that she would grow up to be a great mathematician. Right after her graduation, her teacher, Mr. Tan, asks her what she sees in the following: 12 = 5+7, 40 = 3+37, 100 = 41+59. She immediately recognizes that even numbers appear to be expressed as sums of two primes. Mr. Tan tells her that this “1+1” problem (even numbers as a prime plus another prime) is the Goldbach conjecture, which he has tried to prove over his lifetime but has failed so he’s handing over the baton to her.

As was mandatory for all graduates under Mao’s regime, she is sent to the countrywide on government assignment – surveying rice fields and rationing, in her case. Over a year, events take their twists and turns, she gets accused by the villagers as a government spy, beaten up and thrown off a minor cliff, leading to permanent damage.

2 years later, in 1976, the cultural revolution ends. In 1977, Chen Jingrun (the real life mathematician) proves the “1+2” version of the Goldbach conjecture (sufficiently large even numbers as sum of a prime and a product of at most 2 primes). He is later imprisoned by the Chinese govt. for his political activities [It appears that the story may have the dates wrong. Chen’s paper on this was published in 1966, per Google sources]

There is a subtext of trailing ellipses hanging in the entire last part of the story [I suppose each reader will find his or her own message], “Why? Why such a waste? Couldn’t it have been different? And so much for the better…”

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  2. Decoded by Mai Jia
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  4. Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis / Christos Papadimitriou
  5. Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides
  6. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
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  8. Yesternight by Cat Winters
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  10. The Ishango Bone by Paul Hastings Wilson
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GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifProdigies, Female Mathematicians,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)