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A Desirable Middle (2016)
Susan Sechrist

In this story which appeared in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, a recently divorced woman contemplates her own tastes in things and seems especially concerned with the aspect ratios of the objects that she does or does not like.

(quoted from A Desirable Middle)

The golden ratio—1.618—is the number many architects used to design doorways and arches. It defined the composition of many famous works of art—what to put here, what to put there. It appeared in nature, in the turns of a seashell's spiral or the order of petals in a flower. It was the basis of the shape of the paperback book. I didn't like the shape of paperback books. They were too narrow.

Apparently, she has unusual taste since she doesn't like the shape of paperback books which has been chosen to be appealing to the masses. She also seems to be having trouble in social situations, rejecting a man that her twin sister has set her up with and refusing to join her sister on an outing, opting instead to stay home alone. In an attempt to figure out what ratio governs her own tastes in things, she collects the most treasured objects from her life and records the ratios of their lengths to their widths, computing the average of those recorded values but also wondering whether it should be a weighted average taking into account the objects' importance to her.

Math also arises in a few other ways in this story. In remembering a student with whom she took calculus who was interested in the chemistry of metals, the protagonist mentions Penrose Tilings and the Fibonacci Sequence, each of which also has an asymptotic connection to φ. She mentions probability in discussing her inability to accurately predict her twin sister's needs (and vice versa).

But, those are just details. Looking at the big picture, this is a story about someone unsuccessfully using mathematics in their search for meaning in their own life. Although she seems convinced that math will somehow help her, many readers will surely be left with the impression that mathematics is contributing to her social isolation rather than helping in any way. Consequently, while this is a beautifully written and emotionally potent short story that utilizes math, I worry that it promotes a negative stereotype of mathematics.

[This story about someone's tastes in things has raised a question for me about my own tastes. I prefer exactness to vagueness or approximation. For example, it bothers me when people refer to the golden ratio by giving a decimal approximation. Contrary to what this story and so many other popular accounts say, the golden ratio φ is not 1.618. It is near to 1.618 but so are lots of other numbers and only one of those is the golden mean. The unique number φ which is the golden ratio is not defined by its decimal expansion or by a measure of how aesthetically appealing it is to people. Rather, it is the only ratio defined by this property: If you break an object of length L into two pieces so that the ratio of the length of the longer piece to the shorter piece is the same as the ratio of the length of the whole object to the longer piece, then that ratio is φ. It is exactly one half of the number which is one more than the square root of 5. I wonder why it matters so much to me that φ is not the rational number 1.618 when other people seem satisfied with that approximation?]

The citation for the published version of this story is: Sechrist, S. "A Desirable Middle," Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Volume 6 Issue 1 (January 2016), pages 299-305. DOI: 10.5642/jhummath.201601.25

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to A Desirable Middle
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Geometry of Love by John Cheever
  2. The Equationist by J. D. Moyer
  3. Tracking the Random Variable by Marcos Donnelly
  4. An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender
  5. Do the Math: A Novel of the Inevitable by Philip Persinger
  6. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  7. Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  8. Kavita Through Glass by Emily Ishem Raboteau
  9. The Mathematics of Nina Gluckstein by Esther Vilar
  10. The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] by Paolo Giordano
Ratings for A Desirable Middle:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Math as Cold/Dry/Useless, Romance,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)