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A Mathematician's Love Story (1901)
James Richmond Aitken

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A very sensitive story of lifelong love full of silent heartache for a man whose mind was filled for the most part by mathematics and relentless questions about calculations of laws governing daily physical situations.

Angus Smith was a child prodigy born to a shepherd in the village of Glen in Enochdhu. At the age of two, he could multiply small numbers; by seven, he was “dipping into science and algebra on his own account”. When the shepherd once saw his son late at night experimenting with a candle placed between two mirrors and calculating the distances of the various images in the infinite reflections, he was convinced he had a genius on his hands, illiterate though he was. The next day, he took Angus to his school mathematics teacher, Dominie Baird, “the old master who ruled Enochdhu - a maker of men”.

(quoted from A Mathematician's Love Story)

“[Donnie] put him through a course of Pure Mathematics, and found him cantering through Euclid, Book XII., ere most of the school had entered Book III. He tried him with Trigonometry and Conic Sections, and saw the boy delight in symbols, like an artist in forms, or a child in toys. He went on to applied Mathematics and found his appetite keener still. The charm of science now lay on every problem, and the scholar ate greedily. The Dominie could not contain himself for joy. And, when he died, he prophesied aloud, that the nation would never lack a mathematician while Angus Smith lived.”

In such tutelage did Angus grow over the next few years to the age of thirteen.

(quoted from A Mathematician's Love Story)

“He was a long, lanky, big-boned boy, with a great head that seemed too heavy for him and hung down on his shoulders, covered with a shock of fair hair. His face was open and simple, his mouth firmly set, his brow broad and high, his eyes deep-blue and hazy, as if filled with visions far away. He thought in symbols and resolved everything into figures. Mathematical problems were ever starting up in him, and he set himself to solve them wherever he might be, whatever doing. Naturally, he was a source of great amusement to every boy in the Glen, as well as of wonder. They joked him in Enochdhu, but, in the great world beyond, they were proud of him, and spoke oft the glories of our Symbolist.”

Angus was forever occupied with questions related to calculations. On the playground, he would ask about time it would take a ball to travel at a specific velocity. Walking along meadows and hills, he would calculate the distances using echo-ranging. For rod vibrating in water, he would ask about the wavelengths and frequencies. He discovered the laws of reflections for himself and even thought about convex lens focusing rays at the focal point.

At thirteen, following a funny (if dangerous) adventure and accident involving stealing bird eggs from a tall tree, he fell in love with Jeanie McClintock, the daughter of Angus’s father’s employer, Rab McClintock.

(quoted from A Mathematician's Love Story)

“She was a little lithe-limbed lass, with wild black eyes that shone with super-abounding life. She was the leader of the school in every frolic, leader of all the boys and girls, wilder than the wildest boy in Enochdhu. She could guddle trout, climb trees, run a race with the best of them. Her great delight was to mount her father’s untamed colts, and ride them, bare-backed, till they dropped. The law of opposites was surely at work when it brought these two together. And Fate was very hard.”

He would carry Janie’s bag everywhere and be willing to do the hardest of chores for her, a lamb following his Mary, love-struck. But as luck would have it, Rab decided to emigrate out of Glen to larger, better pastures. Events unfolded.

(quoted from A Mathematician's Love Story)

“At first, the joy of travel and adventure, far afield, possessed Jeanie, and carried her many days. Then, as the time drew near when she must leave “ home,” a sense of weariness and loneliness overcame her. And in her weariness she turned to the Mathematician. And all the sentimental that was in her woke. The night before she went away they met by the Garry and wandered through the Pass together. Her heart was very tender, and, like the child she was, she let it speak. She leant on a stile and wept, and he dried her tears.

‘Here, Angus, let me peen it on yir breast —a sprig o’ ivy—and a wee blue floo’er, “ I-cling-to-thee,” “ Forget-me-not !”

And she held up her face to be kissed.

And the Mathematician kissed her.

It was his first kiss —and his last”

And with that, Jeanie left. Fate wrote:

(quoted from A Mathematician's Love Story)

“She was twelve years of age and he thirteen. What wonder that when she went away she forgot ? She was only a child. Her new strange life engulfed her. old passed like a childish dream. The new grew up, and wiped it out. She forgot ! She forgot! And the Mathematician in course of time became a blurred memory. But with him it was different. That meeting and parting were real forever. That kiss lingered on his lips. That tender look stirred his heart, and would not pass away.”

After that, Angus lost all passion and remained a Postman in Enochdhu, as well as a mathematics tutor. Over the years, the only news he got of Jeanie was of her marriage...

(quoted from A Mathematician's Love Story)

“No one knew of the Mathematician’s lasting love for her, and so he never was told even this. Nor did he hear till, thirty years later, her son came to Enochdhu, and told that Jean was dead. In the Glen, too, he was counted heartless, loveless, a passionless sage, wedded to symbols, affianced to figures. They twitted him about women, and put him mathematical queries as to the number of wedless maidens in the world, and the simple fraction that might easily be resolved by him. But he answered them not a word. He went on with his work, loving her in secret with a great and deathless love—till near the end.”

A chance observation by his childhood friend, Gordon of Tomnamoan, led to everyone knowing his undying devotion to that one lost love of his. And all of Glen glorified that man of symbols and algebras, for he was always revered as a saint even when considered odd. As the narrator ends the story:

(quoted from A Mathematician's Love Story)

“Angus Smith went home that night and took a withered flower from his Book. It was the flower Jean pinned on his breast that summer eve long ago. He felt the thrill of her kiss still, and saw the tears in her eyes! And he bent and kissed the flower softly. It was broken and withered and brown, but its message was fresh in his heart. And there in his book the flower lay till he died, and lies unto this day—a memorial of the greatness of his love. I have it in my desk now, and, when my heart is faithless or weary, I take it out, and have a long, long look.”

This sweet love story appeared in Aitken's anthology “Love In Its Tenderness - Idylls of Enochdhu”

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Works Similar to A Mathematician's Love Story
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Old Mathematician by Dinah Maria Muloch
  2. The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) by Yoko Ogawa
  3. Young Archimedes by Aldous Huxley
  4. The Captured Cross-Section by Miles J. Breuer (M.D.)
  5. Say Wen by Ellis Parker Butler
  6. The Mathematical Kid by Ross Rocklynne
  7. Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. Long Division by Michael Redhill
  9. The Geometrics of Johnny Day by Nelson Bond
  10. The Genius by Nikolai Georgievich Garin-Mikhailovskii
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MotifProdigies, 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)