a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Tracking the Random Variable (1991)
Marcos Donnelly
Highly Rated!
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors).

Ronald Barr is a statistician with a knack for identifying hidden variables. For example, it was he who recognized that by offering chicken soup and hot chocolate in the automatic coffee machine, his company could cut petty theft of office supplies by 32 percent statewide. Nevertheless, he somehow loses his job. While working at the auto repair shop owned by his wife's uncle, he becomes obsessed with figuring out why his wife is staying out late at night. Finally he is correlated with the number of spark plugs sold at the shop! So, he sets out to resolve the problem (by sending back all of the spark plugs, of course).

Contributed by V WIng

I think the comments about this story showing math to be cold, meaningless, etc are very off base. If anything, this beautifully written short story demonstrates how math is integral to everything in life, including which blade of grass is hit by a random pebble.

It is Ronald Barr who is lost and it is his fatal flaw that keeps him from being saved by the even the rationality of mathematics.

I can see your point, V Wlng. Certainly, the story does show that mathematics is useful. However, it also portrays Ronald as being "cold" (he cannot understand his wife on a human/emotional level, but only can try to predict her behavior through equations) and the other characters appear to find Ronald unlikeable ("dry") and distasteful despite his usefulness. And, as useful as math is in finding helpful correlations at work, it seems to destroy both his career and his marriage. As a result, I still think that this story should have this categorization so that someone attempting to find works of fiction in which a character's mathematical ability is associated with emotional coldness or ultimate failure can locate Ronald Barr as a good example.

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Works Similar to Tracking the Random Variable
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Slightly Perfect / Are you with it? by George Malcolm-Smith (Novel) / Sam Perrin (Script) / George Balzer (Script)
  2. Stranger than Fiction by Marc Forster (Director) / Zach Helm (Screenplay)
  3. The Geometry of Love by John Cheever
  4. A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock
  5. The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin
  6. Long Division by Michael Redhill
  7. De Impossibilitate Vitae and Prognoscendi by Stanislaw Lem
  8. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
  9. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  10. The Visiting Professor by Robert Littell
Ratings for Tracking the Random Variable:
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:
3.5/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (4 votes)

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

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)