a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Center of the Universe (2005)
Alex Kasman
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This short story was intended to serve two different purposes. On the one hand it is a glimpse into the lives and interactions of mathematics graduate students. And, on the other, it addresses the philosophical question of what it would mean to find a "hidden message" in the decimal expansion of a famous mathematical constant.

Being a graduate student in mathematics can be a wonderful experience. I suppose the same is probably true in any discipline. The life of a grad student is largely free of the responsibilities that most adults must bear, and so it is a kind of extended childhood. Moreover, although one must work very hard to learn the material well enough to become a mathematician, most students love the subject enough to want to put that effort in...and when that isn't enough, there is the comraderie of bearing that burden together. Finally, the students develop very different roles (the social one who keeps everyone entertained, the brilliant one who seems to have all the answers, the connected one who has contact with lots of real mathematicians, etc.) I tried to capture as much of that as I could in this short story.

I don't think I would have considered the idea of a "secret message" hidden in a number had it not been for Carl Sagan's novel Contact. In the book, but not the movie, Ellie is told by aliens that they found a secret message hidden in one of the constants of mathematics. Consider, for instance, if you found a string of digits in the expansion of e or π that looked like a coded message. What would that mean? Who could have left such a message?

To play with this idea, I use two real pieces of mathematics. On the one hand, there is a recently discovered algorithm for finding any given digit of the number π when expanded in hexadecimal (see here, for instance). And, on the other hand, there is an old result of Hardy and Littlewood which shows that any given finite sequence of digits is almost certain to appear in the decimal expansion of any randomly selected irrational number. (That is, although there are examples of real numbers which do not contain your phone number in their decimal expansion, if you select one at random then the probability that you will pick one that does not contain your phone number is vanishingly small.)

When you combine these, you get the surprising fact that the number π almost certainly contains any given sequence of digits (for instance, it probably contains the text of this very webpage translated into digits by using the ASCII code for each character). On the other hand, finding the location of that string of digits in π by using the Bailey-Borwein-Plouffe formula is practically impossible!

So, again, this story was an opportunity to play around with these ideas in the context of the social life of some math grad students. I'm curious to know whether other people enjoyed it, found it interesting, found it confusing, or what. Please write in with your comments if you've read it!

More information about this work can be found at another page on this Website.
(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 Center of the Universe
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Herr Doctor's Wondrous Smile by Vladimir Tasic
  2. The Gimatria of Pi by Lavie Tidhar
  3. Monster by Alex Kasman
  4. Contact by Carl Sagan
  5. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
  6. The Adventures of Topology Man by Alex Kasman
  7. The Legend of Howard Thrush by Alex Kasman
  8. Rumpled Stiltskin by Colin Adams
  9. On the Quantum Theoretic Implications of Newton's Alchemy by Alex Kasman
  10. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
Ratings for The Center of the Universe:
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:
5/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

MotifAcademia, Math Education,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics, Probability/Statistics,
MediumShort Stories,

Home All New Browse Search About

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)