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The Arnold Proof (2002)
Jessica Francis Kane

This short story begins with a quote from Philip E.B. Jourdain's essay "The Nature of Mathematics". In the quote, he explains how in the process of carrying out a complicated computation, one may want to "neglect quantities which embarrass the combinations if it be foreseen that these quantities cannot by reason of their small value produce more than a trifling error in the result of the calculations". In the story, as with so much fiction, this is applied to the case of a mathematician who is ignoring his life/reality/his wife.

Professor Arnold's midlife crisis seems to have begun when he heard about Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Thus began his obsession with finding a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis (arguably, the next most famous open problem of number theory after FLT). However, his research does not appear to be working and the hints from his wife about her discontent are getting so blatant that even he is having trouble ignoring them.

Although it has a decent description of the Riemann Hypothesis for a work of fiction, it also makes a number of small errors elsewhere in the story. For instance, it refers to the “x, y, z of the Cartesian plane", and presents a strange apparently nonsensical discussion of “the arrow of time” (see below). More significantly, it repeats and therefore contributes to a number of unjustified prejudices against mathematicians (the “old saws” about being driven crazy by math research and only doing good work when young which do not seem to be supported by any real evidence despite their popularity).

The story also discusses in detail Poincare’s definition and discovery of Fuchsian functions. This is obviously inspired by an essay which Poincare wrote on the creative process for psychologists which discusses this particular topic.

The conclusion of the story involves Arnold either going mad and thinking that he has -- or perhaps actually -- "solving" the problem of the arrow of time. I suppose this is meant to be more of a metaphor than any literal mathematics, since I was not able to make any sense out of it. However, as I've recently read other stories that really do address the question of the arrow of time in a more enlightening way (see Boltzmann's Ghost), I couldn't help but be disappointed by this.

Still, none of this detracts much from the story’s obvious literary merits; it is a well-told, melancholy story. It was published in Kane's collection Bending Heaven.

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Works Similar to The Arnold Proof
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
  2. Com os Meus Olhos de Cão [With My Dog Eyes] by Hilda Hilst
  3. The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) by Yoko Ogawa
  4. Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby
  5. The Last Theorem by Buzz Mauro
  6. Boltzmann's Ghost by Ken Wharton
  7. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  8. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  9. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
  10. Towel Season by Ron Carlson
Ratings for The Arnold Proof:
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, Insanity, Academia, Proving Theorems,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)