MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The N-Plus-1th-Degree (1968)
Stephen Barr
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A mathematician is accused of murdering a man who flirted with his wife. Her faith in him (which is so strong, she describes it as being to the n-plus-1th degree) allows her to figure out how and by whom he was framed.

We never actually meet the mathematician in this story, but he is described in stereotypical terms. Those who have read many of my reviews on this Website know that I have a bit of a "chip on my shoulder" when it comes to stereotypes of mathematicians, but the two presented here do not bother me so much.

(quoted from The N-Plus-1th-Degree)

When I say Bill Ford was absentminded, I mean his powers of observation were subservient to his powers of concentration and if he went out in nonmatching socks it was because he'd worked out some terrific equation in his head, and socks didn't matter.

At several points in the story, Ford's "absentmindedness" becomes relevant, but I think that Barr has caught some aspect of the truth here. I think mathematicians might seem absentminded...although it is not because their powers of observations are weaker than their powers of concentration. Rather, I would argue, it is true of anyone that they would appear absentminded if they are concentrating on some problem which they are trying to solve, whether that problem be of a mathematical nature or otherwise. It just so happens that due to our chosen careers, mathematicians pretty much always have some problem that we're thinking about!

(quoted from The N-Plus-1th-Degree)

"He's too mathematical, or logical, to tell lies -- he's too set on expressing truth, and he's not in the least vague about that..."

Again, I think Barr is on to something here. I think that mathematicians do tend to be people who are especially focused on the idea of "truth". Many of us ended up in mathematics because -- despite Godel's theorem which prevents us from reaching the ideals once dreamed of -- mathematics remains the human endeavor in which we can get closest to absolute truth. Mathematicians pride ourselves on telling the truth, no more and no less, when it comes to our subject...and I would not be surprised if this extended to our thinking in non-mathematical areas as well. (Take for instance this standard joke: "A mathematician and her husband are driving on a rural highway through a part of the country they've never seen before. As they pass a herd of cattle, the husband says `Look, honey! The cows around here are brown.' Being a mathematician, she notes that she does not yet know this for certain and says `Yes, at least on one side.'" Well, it's funnier if I don't try to explain it so much ; )

Perhaps it is this very quality that forces me to include the following discussion of an extremely minor point: Although not directly relevant to the mystery, the phrase in the title is chosen to suggest that the wife's faith goes beyond just faith to the nth degree. However, I have always taken "to the nth degree" to mean "without bound" since the n is not specified and can consequently be chosen to be arbitrarily large. So, to the nth degree really means to an infinite degree and the n-plus-1th degree gets you nothing more.

This story features a character named Dr. Sylvan Moore, who appears to be a mathematician and a recurring character. Does anyone out there know any other mathematical stories featuring Moore?

The ending was a bit obvious, and the writing was less than perfect (the opening passage in which the author toys with the fact that "n-plus-1th" rhymes with "month" is so muddled that "Ellery Queen" felt obligated to add an editor's note urging the reader to keep going despite the confusion!), but the story is decent enough and fun to read.

Originally published in Ellery Queen magazine in 1968 and replublished in 1975 in the collection "Ellery Queen's Masters of Mystery".


Aha! "William E. Emba" has pointed out that Stephen Barr (presumably the same Stephen Barr) is the author of a popular (and now quite inexpensive) book on topology: Experiments in Topology. This would suggest that Barr himself is (was?) a mathematician. If anyone knows any more, please do let me know! -Alex

(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 N-Plus-1th-Degree
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Lord Darcy by Randall Garrett
  2. The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez
  3. The Symbolic Logic of Murder by John Reese
  4. The Zero Clue by Rex Stout
  5. Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in his Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges
  6. Go, Little Book by Isaac Asimov
  7. Musgrave Ritual by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  8. The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle
  9. Getting the Combination by Isaac Asimov
  10. Adventure of the Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Ratings for The N-Plus-1th-Degree:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreMystery,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Gödel,
Topic
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)