MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

...
Summer Solstice (1985)
Charles Leonard Harness
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
...

I did enjoy reading this short story (nominated for a Nebula award in 1985) in which the famous Greek mathematician Eratosthenes determines the Earth's circumference and meets a shipwrecked alien, but I am seriously troubled by it's historical innacuracies. It is true that Eratosthenes (also known for his work on prime numbers) came up with a very good estimate of the circumference of the Earth. His method involved using a deep well to determine when the sun was directly overhead at one point and the measurement of a shadow at another point. (If you want to reproduce his experiment, you can follow the steps at this friendly website aimed at middle-schoolers.) However, Harness has a very strange idea of what the world was like and especially what was known at the time.

For instance, Harness has Eratosthenes recognizing that the "other planets" go around the Sun just as the Earth does. Since he is told by the alien that the Earth goes around the sun, I am willing to believe that Eratosthenes could handle this idea. However, he would never have thought this was consequently true of the "other planets". The ancient Greeks did not think of Earth as one of the planets. In fact, the word "planet" itself derives from the fact that they thought of planets as wandering stars and had no way to think of them being in any way like the thing we live on. Similarly, there is no reason to expect that he would be able to conclude from this that the sun is just a star which we are close to...this is not really a logical consequence of a heliocentric solar system.

Moreover, the mathematics he consults does not sound believable to me. This story takes place long before the decimal numbering system that we are familiar with, and before trigonometry as we know it. I could be wrong about this (please correct me if you know!) but I seriously doubt that you could have looked up a table of values of the tangent function in 160 BC.

I'm sure there are other historical innacuracies. (He has a "rabbi" there among the non-mathematical figures that Eratosthenes encounters. My understanding is that there was no rabbinic Judaism at this point in history. Again, correct me if I'm wrong.)

If none of the anachronisms or innaccuracies bother you, what about the idea that on the day after he has determined the Earth's circumference, Eratosthenes just happens to meet an alien who needs this exact piece of information to be able to return home?

(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 Summer Solstice
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Globión's Whimsical Shape (La Caprichosa Forma de Globión) by Alejandro Illanes Mejía
  2. Progress by Alex Kasman
  3. Conceiving Ada by Lynn Hershman-Leeson
  4. The Square Root of Pythagoras by Paul Di Filippo / Rudy Rucker
  5. Mersenne's Mistake by Jason Earls
  6. Oracle by Greg Egan
  7. Newton's Gift by Paul J. Nahin
  8. The Future Engine by Byron Tetrick
  9. The Difference Engine by William Gibson / Bruce Sterling
  10. The Shiloh Project by David R. Beaucage
Ratings for Summer Solstice:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction, Science Fiction,
MotifAliens, Real Mathematicians, Religion,
Topic
MediumShort Stories,

Home All New Browse Search About

Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)