MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Cold Equations (1954)
Tom Godwin
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for young adults, hardcore fans of science fiction and literati.

This classic science fiction story is a favorite of English teachers because, even after all of these years, it has the ability to get the attention of and provoke discussion amongst otherwise apathetic students. In the story, a space-pilot must face the difficult decision of whether to eject a stowaway on his ship into space. On the one hand, the stowaway is a sympathetically drawn innocent young girl. On the other hand, there is not enough fuel for the ship to reach its destination with her on board and many people will die if it does not. Although the character development of the girl and the moral quandry are things that readers will often end up discussing, one of the main points (as the title implies) is that the universe is governed by "cold equations", unconcerned with our feelings or morality, unable to be altered by our politics or our wishes. Well, why should I try to explain it when you can read it for yourself. Here is the passage from which the title is drawn:

(quoted from The Cold Equations)

The law of gravitation was a rigid equation and it made no distinction between the fall of a leaf and the ponderous circling of a binary star system. The nuclear conversion process powered the crusiers that carried men to the stars; the same process in the form of a nova would destroy a world with equal efficiency. The laws were, and the universe moved in obedience to them. Along the frontier were arrayed all the forces of nature and sometimes they destroyed htose who were fighting their way outward from Earth. The men of the frontier had long ago learned the bitter futility of cursing the froces taht would destroy them, for the forces were blind and deaf; the futility of looking to the heavens for mercy, for the stars of the galaxy swung in their long, long sweep of two hundred million years, as inexorably controlled as they by the laws that knew neither hatred nor compassion.

The men of the frontier knew -- but how was a girl from Earth to fully understand. H amount of fuel will not power an EDS with a mass of m plus x safely to its destination. To himself and her brother and parents she was as sweet-faced girl in her teens; to the laws of nature she was x, the unwanted factor in a cold equation.

The story was adapted for the screen at least twice. It was done, very well in my opinion, as an episode of the 1980's version of the Twilight Zone where -- if anything -- the references to mathematics were enhanced. It was also made into a made for TV movie that I've never seen, but according to the reviews I've read, it sort of misses the point. Instead of being about the "cold equations" that we cannot change, the underlying laws of physics, the TV movie makes it about the cold hearted men who run our big industries.

At the moment, it seems to be available on-line (with typos) at this link. Note that I have nothing to do with it being there and would not be at all surprised if it is removed soon since I suspect that there are copyright issues that are being ignored by posting it. But, take a look at it there while you can!

Contributed by Todd Morman

Not much calculating going on, sure, but the place of math in the story is central. Just seemed to merit a bit higher "math content" rating than 1.85.

Contributed by Danijil Vitalijovy?

Arguably, the first modern SF story to take math seriously.

Contributed by Anonymous

I use this story with my 8th grade language art students...It is a great piece to use for cross-curricular studies...my students get hooked and then have great discussions about the laws of nature vs the laws of man/society as well as actions /responsibilities. This is one of my favorite short stories to teach.

Contributed by TIM J. MCKEE

THIS IS IN REFERENCE TO THE STORY BY TOM GODWIN'S "THE COLD EQUASIONS". I'VE READ THE STORY AND HAVE SEEN THE TWILIGHT ZONE EPISODE.

IT IS THE SADDEST TV EPISODE I'VE EVER SEEN AND SHOULD BE REQUIRED VIEWING FOR ANYONE GOING INTO THE AEROSPACE INDUSTRY. THIS IS TELEVISION AND SCIENCE FICTION AT IT'S FINEST.

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at amazon.com. Amazon.com logo
(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 The Cold Equations
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Feeling of Power by Isaac Asimov
  2. Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem
  3. The Ethical Equations by Murray Leinster
  4. Tracking the Random Variable by Marcos Donnelly
  5. Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick
  6. The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein
  7. The Pi Man by Alfred Bester
  8. Star, Bright by Mark Clifton
  9. The Island of Five Colors by Martin Gardner
  10. Into the Comet by Arthur C. Clarke
Ratings for The Cold Equations:
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:
2.39/5 (15 votes)
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Literary Quality:
3.49/5 (18 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreScience Fiction,
MotifMath as Cold/Dry/Useless,
Topic
MediumTelevision Series or Episode, Short Stories, Films,

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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)