MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Gnome and the Pearl of Wisdom: A Fable (1977)
Richard Willmott
Highly Rated!

A greedy gnome with a countably infinite collection of marbles wants to trade it with Merlin the mathematician for his beautiful "pearl of wisdom". Merlin takes advantage of the gnomes unfamiliarity with the bizarre properties of infinite sets to trick him instead.

The story is very cleverly constructed. We go step by step along with the gnome. We learn about convergent infinite series (how long it takes him to number his marbles if he does each in half the time it took him to do the previous one.) We similarly believe that he can put them all in numbered boxes in the same way. However, just a tiny twist on this last feat turns out paradoxically to lead to an unexpected, and unbelievable, outcome. What this demonstrates, I suppose, is that the physical universe cannot both include an infinite number of things and allow one of those objects to do an infinite number of things to them in a finite amount of time. If those were both the case, then a paradox could be physically achieved. It does not appear that there are an infinite number of particles in the universe, but even if there were (and perhaps there are, despite our current cosmological models) this would not be a problem since the limitation on the speed of travel (e.g. speed of light) would prevent something from acting on two objects at a sufficiently great distance apart in a short amount of time.

(Published in Math Magazine, vol 50, no 3 (May 1977) pp. 141-143.

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Works Similar to The Gnome and the Pearl of Wisdom: A Fable
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Extraordinary Hotel or the Thousand and First Journey of Ion the Quiet by Stanislaw Lem
  2. Rumpled Stiltskin by Colin Adams
  3. Hilbert's Hotel by Ian Stewart
  4. Flatterland: like Flatland, only more so by Ian Stewart
  5. The Rose Acacia by Ralph P. Boas,~Jr.
  6. Kandelman's Krim: A Realistic Fantasy by John Lighton Synge
  7. The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj
  8. Jayden's Rescue by Vladimir Tumanov
  9. The Number Devil (Der Zahlenteufel) by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
  10. The Mathematician’s Nightmare: The Vision of Professor Squarepunt by Bertrand Russell
Ratings for The Gnome and the Pearl of Wisdom: A Fable:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4.67/5 (6 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3/5 (6 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreFantasy, Didactic,
Motif
TopicInfinity,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)