MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Numberland (1987)
George Weinberg
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for young adults.

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

The co-author (with John Schumaker) of STATISTICS: AN INTUITIVE APPROACH, and practicing psychotherapist, tells a charming little fable about Numberland.

Peace, harmony, and stagnation seems to be the eternal lot of Numberland, until one day 6 makes contact with a human mathematical prodigy. 6's story sets Numberland agog with anxiety and doubt.

The mathematical issues of scale and infinity are handled admirably, as the numbers naively go searching for their largest.

Contributed by Anonymous

This book is better than I thought it would be. It is kinda cute.

There are no real surprises in this book, and so I will discuss it below without worrying too much about spoiling it for anyone who hasn't read it. However, if you do plan to read it, perhaps you should stop reading this review now so as not to learn too much.

In this short book, the numbers (which is to say, the positive integers) are given very human personalities and lives. The physical size of the numbers corresponds to their value, so that the large numbers are practically too big to be seen by the likes of 6 and 101. In fact, when numbers travel far, they do so by getting on a tray which is lifted up and then placed down a great distance away by a number much bigger than themselves.

Professor 1000, who was an academic before becoming a rather dictatorial president of all Numberland, is concerned about the rumors that 6 has been spreading about the possible mortality of numbers and their relationship to humans. To boost morale, he proposes a parade of all of the numbers, from the smallest to the largest. The only problem is, nobody seems to be able to find the largest. Panic ensues, 1000 exiles 6 for the good of the republic, sixist terrorists try to stop 1000 whom they perceive as having gone too far, etc.

Politics and psychology are both key elements of the interest in this book, but as far as the plot goes, the big questions are to find "the biggest" and to understand the relationship between numbers and people.

It will not surprise anyone to learn that the numbers eventually decide there is no biggest. However, the presentation of this fact, and the relationship between numbers and people that the book presents, are not entirely free of controversy. Personally, I agree with the sentiment expressed by the author. There is no biggest because that is the way we chose it -- i.e., we could just as easily have decided that the numbers were a finite group like Z mod 2^9000 -- and the relationship of numbers to people is that they are our creation and only exist because of us.

Just for the record, I feel that it ought to be stated that a good many mathematicians disagree with this viewpoint. Perhaps I could find one to actually quote here. As I am not a "believer", I may get this wrong, but there is a reasonable viewpoint that the numbers (and all of the mathematical objects with which mathematicians deal) are not just human creations, but real objects of an abstract nature that we have discovered. I suspect that people who hold this viewpoint would object to the book's conclusions. However, even they would probably enjoy its light and entertaining style.

The character of Elizabeth, the human that 6 meets as a prodigy and then sees grow up into a Nobel prize winning mathematician, is described in reasonable detail. It is unclear to me whether the author is aware that there is no Nobel prize in mathematics.

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Works Similar to Numberland
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Mathematician’s Nightmare: The Vision of Professor Squarepunt by Bertrand Russell
  2. The Number Devil (Der Zahlenteufel) by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
  3. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster / Jules Feiffer (Illustrator)
  4. Three Days in Karlikania by Vladimir Levshin
  5. A Gebra Named Al by Wendy Isdell
  6. Napier's Bones by Derryl Murphy
  7. The Cat in Numberland by Ivar Ekeland (author) / John O'Brien (illustrator)
  8. The Princess Hoppy or the Tale of Labrador by Jacques Roubaud
  9. Nanny and the Professor (TV Series) by AJ Carothers (creator) / Thomas L. Miller (creator)
  10. The Devil a Mathematician Would Be by A.J. Lohwater
Ratings for Numberland:
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 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHumorous, Fantasy,
MotifProdigies,
TopicInfinity, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)