a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Math plays a major role in this episode of the Netflix series "Travelers". Following the show's usual format, the episode begins with a person in the present day going about his normal activity when his body is taken over by a mind sent from the future. Unbeknownst to "The Director" who selects the bodies to be taken over (justified by the fact that they were going to die anyway momentarily), this particular host body happens to belong to a serial killer and his "normal activity" is disposing of his victim's belongings by burning them with gasoline. The host's body is saved from death, but his criminal activity is consequently discovered. So, instead of being able to go on with his mission to save the world, he gets arrested by the FBI.
His mission, we later learn, is to point out a mathematical error to two physicists who just discovered an amazing power source. Because of that error, when the generator is actually built decades later, it will lead to a gamma ray burst and the death of billions of innocent people. With Agent MacLaren's help, he is able to meet with one of the two physicists in front of the board where she has written the key formula and convince her to withdraw the paper she just submitted.
This is not (IMHO) a brilliant piece of mathematical fiction by any means. The math itself is barely discussed. (We simply see the traveler change a minus sign to a plus sign in the formula on the board.) The little mathematical dialogue that there is sounds stilted. (The physicist insists her colleague will also be convinced "once she sees the proper math".) The idea that this error in the sign would not be noticed in this very important formula by anyone either during the review process or in the intervening years before it is built is hard to believe, and even harder to believe is that it would have no noticeable effect before this horrible disaster occurs. And, the authors seem a bit confused about how the editorial process works in scientific publications. (It looks at first as if the scientists just discovered the formula and have written it on a dry erase board in a classroom, but later the traveler historian explains that this is the day their paper is accepted for publication. That doesn't happen on the same day!)
So, I'm not personally recommending that you go out of your way to watch this. (To see a similar idea executed better by other writers, check out either Buried Alive at the End of the World or Blowups Happen.) Nevertheless, I do not consider the quality of a work of fiction in deciding whether to list it in this database. Rather, it has to do with the role that math has to play in it. In this case, we see that a mathematical error can lead to tragedy, and that a correction of that error can be an act of great heroism. It may not be a great example of the genre, but it is mathematical fiction!
Thanks to my CofC colleague Brenton Lemesurier for bringing this episode to my attention.
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|(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.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)