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Long Division (2003)
Michael Redhill

The title of this short story refers both to arithmetic, a beloved subject of the school age child at its center, and the separation that his mother feels from him and his father due to the child's extraordinary mathematical abilities.

Catherine Nilson desperately wants to find something normal in her child, something she can identify with. However, Daniel is unusual. When he begins to notice the problems his parents are encountering, he makes a graph (shown in the story) to illustrate the relationship between their marriage status and what they have for breakfast. (I don't think the graph makes much sense. Does the author not understand the way to graph information or is this supposed to be the child's confusion? I'm guessing it is the former.) He gets excited about math:

(quoted from Long Division)

Daniel muddled through the boredom of early school, but his pent-up intelligence burst its confines in grade three, and in early September of that year, he'd stood up in Mrs. Renald's class and declaimed passionately on the beauty and mystery of math. This had come just as his homeroom was to tackle double-digit addition, and Mrs. Renald had written 14+37= on the blackboard. She was goind to demonstrate the power of vertical formulation, but the vision of the numbers with their operators had caused Daniel's fervor to coalesce.

"The equals sign is like a magic trick," he'd said, standing and speaking as if he were merly a conduit for a voice from another place. "Before it, numbers gather and decide to do things together. Fouteen, thirty-seven....they want to be something else. This is why they come. Sometimes they join together, or one takes itself away, like it's digging a hole in the other number. Or one number will come together with another number as many times as that other number is. Or it will take itself out of that number as many times as it can, until there's nothing left. That's called division." He'd been gesturing with his hands about the room, as if the figures he was speaking of had taken form in the air around him. Then he lowered his eyes again to his bewildered classmates. "But this isn't the best thing about numbers," he said. "What's really neat is that everything is math. Like, if you add time and pressure to coal, that equals diamonds." (He'd considered going to the front of the room and taking up some chalk to write C+(T x P)=D, but he did not want to confuse them.)

Infinity gets mentioned twice in the story. Once in an opening quote from Fields medalist Timothy Gowers, and then again when Daniel inquires about the difference between "infinity" and "eternity" and tells his parents that "zero divided by zero" is not infinity, it just "isn't anything".

The plot of the story revolves around Daniel's mother's belief that he has lied to her when he said that he was allowed to use a calculator in doing his math homework. She views this lie as a hint of normalcy in her child and clings to it, but at the same time goes in to see his math teacher and is disappointed to learn that Daniel was telling the truth.

First published electronically in Zoetrope magazine, the story can also be found in the collection Fidelity.

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Works Similar to Long Division
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  2. The Geometry of Sisters by Luanne Rice
  3. Long Division by Buzz Mauro
  4. The Countable by Ken Liu
  5. Star, Bright by Mark Clifton
  6. The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw
  7. The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles by Jim Keeble
  8. The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
  9. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  10. Zero by Buzz Mauro
Ratings for Long Division:
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 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (2 votes)

MotifProdigies, Anti-social Mathematicians, Romance, Math Education,
TopicInfinity, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories,

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