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The Grass and Tree (2003)
Eliot Fintushel
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

The Banach-Tarski paradox is invoked repeatedly as the underlying explanation for shapeshifting. And higher-dimensional generalizations prove crucial to the plot. The author goes so far as to cite (with no actual relevance) G T Sallee `Are Equidecomposable Plane Convex Sets Convex Equidecomposable?' American Mathematical Monthly (Oct 1969).

This story appeared in the February 2003 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and parts of this story are (at least at present) available on-line for free by following the link above or below. Note also that this is a sequel to the story Milo and Sylvie published in the same magazine a few years earlier.

For those who may not know, the Banach-Tarski Theorem is a real, surprising, and somewhat disturbing theorem of geometry. What it says, essentially, is that any sphere can be broken apart into a finite number of pieces and then reassembled into another sphere of any desired volume. Certainly this is disturbing: one is inclined either to be impressed that mathematics has shown us that volume is not what we think it is, or perhaps one will conclude that mathematics doesn't make sense after all! [See Division by Zero]. When I learned about it as an undergraduate (back in the 20th century) we were told that this was an indication of possible problems with the Axiom of Choice (an axiom of set theory that is not universally popular), but that viewpoint seems to be out of date. This is now seen as just one of many indications that volume is a slipperier topic than one might expect. In particular, as this theorem and others like it show, the notion of volume is not "finitely additive"...and there is no alternative measure for arbitrary sets in dimensions 3 or higher which are! In other words, when it comes to volume, the whole may NOT be equal to the sum of its parts.

For more information about this funky theorem, check out this link or even this one.

Now, please forgive me for being too serious, but it annoyed me that the story misuses the theorem. If one were to ignore the atomist view of matter, and if one had a way to break matter (even your own body) up into pieces of arbitrary shape, then the Banach-Tarski theorem WOULD give you a way to reassemble those pieces into something of a different volume. However, this story makes it sound as if it is the theorem that gives them the power to break their body into pieces, and that's just silly. (Sorry.)

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Grass and Tree
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Milo and Sylvie by Eliot Fintushel
  2. Izzy at the Lucky Three by Eliot Fintushel
  3. Hamisch in Avalon by Eliot Fintushel
  4. Ylem by Eliot Fintushel
  5. Fillet of Man by Eliot Fintushel
  6. Herbrand's Conjecture and the White Sox Scandal by Eliot Fintushel
  7. Diamond Dogs by Alistair Reynolds
  8. Technical Error by Arthur C. Clarke
  9. The Cube Root of Conquest by Rog Phillips
  10. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
Ratings for The Grass and Tree:
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)

GenreScience Fiction,
MediumShort Stories,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)