a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Art Thou Mathematics? (1978)
Charles Mobbs
Highly Rated!

Short story (Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, October 1978 Vol. 98 No 10) concerning the very nature of mathematical discovery. It was later rewritten in the form of a play, which the author has graciously allowed me to freely distribute here.

I enjoyed reading the play very much. The joke about the mathematical universe being filled up with infinite series is funny, even if the mathematician in me can't help but say "Wait, that doesn't make any sense." The portrayal of the mathematician, in many ways, is very realistic even if not flattering. However, my main objection is that this story (actually, all I read is the play) creates the impression that mathematicians do not think of coming up with axioms as creating a universe from scratch. Of course, that's what it is and that is one of the joys of mathematics (just as one of the wonders of mathematics is that we seem to be able to find so much application for these fantasy universes in our real one).

Dr. Kasman:

I was delighted to come across your web-site for reasons that I suppose are obvious, as the author of one of the stories you list, above. Obviously I have a great interest in mathematical fiction, so I'm happy to have a site that has compiled such fiction, but of course it's nice to have my story at least see a bit of the light of day.

As per your request [I merely posted a request for information about the story in this location. -ak], I can't exactly evaluate the story objectively, but I can indicate what it's about and how mathematics plays a role in the story, as described below.

"Art thou mathematics" is concerned with the nature of mathematical objects as well as the process of mathematical discovery (or invention, which is part of the point of the story). The plot hinges around the rather whimsical question of "where" mathematical space is, and whether mathematical space can actually contain the mathematical objects assigned to it. The central plot element is that at some point (in the near future, presumably) it becomes clear that new mathematical discoveries are no longer being made, and that in fact new calculations can't even be carried out; the story itself takes the form of a mathematician recounting to an investigative committee how he determined what the problem was, and how he addressed the problem. The key mathematical concept developed in the plot is the concept of transfinite mathematics, which Georg Cantor developed to demonstrate, among other concepts, that there are different sizes of infinity.

I might add that a few years ago I re-wrote, and in my opinion greatly improved, the story as a play that was performed off-off-Broadway here in New York City. While still concerned with the basic questions of discovery in mathematics, the play also works as a satire of academic life (I'm an academic too, though I'm a professional biologist: my interest in mathematics is more of a hobby). At least the satirical part of the play went over very well to audiences, and at least a few people seemed genuinely excited by the concepts.

Thanks again for your wonderful site.


Charles V. Mobbs, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Mt. Sinai School of Medicine
New York, NY 10029

Note: In the play, the mathematician introduces the idea of uncountable infinities in order to explain how there can be a proper infinite subset of an infinite set. In fact, there is no need to introduce Cantor's ideas of infinity here. The fact that infinite subsets do not have to be the entire set are clear from examples involving only positive integers. For example, notice that the powers of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, ...) is an infinite subset of the set of positive integers, but that doesn't mean that all positive integers are powers of two!

More information about this work can be found at another page on this Website.
(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 Art Thou Mathematics?
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Girl with the Celestial Limb by Pauline Melville
  2. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
  3. Stranger than Fiction by Marc Forster (Director) / Zach Helm (Screenplay)
  4. After Math by Miriam Webster
  5. Refund by Fritz Karinthy (original) / Percival Wilde (English Adaptation)
  6. Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory by Rudy Rucker
  7. A New Golden Age by Rudy Rucker
  8. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  9. White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem? by Rudy Rucker
  10. The Mathenauts by Norman Kagan
Ratings for Art Thou Mathematics?:
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:
4/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (3 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MotifAcademia, Proving Theorems,
TopicInfinity, Logic/Set Theory,
MediumPlays, Short Stories, Available Free Online,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)