a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Against the Odds (2001)
Martin Gardner
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Luther Washington, a young, African-American boy in Butterfield, KS must overcome several kinds of prejudice to become a mathematician.

First, he must face the prejudices of his father that his interest in abstract mathematics is a waste of time. (His father says ""All the math you'll ever need in life is knowing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and how to make change.")

Then, he faces the racial discrimination of his math teacher, Miss Perkins, who "felt no hostility towards blacks in general", but was convinced that they were intellectually inferior. Miss Perkins, who was not a math teacher by training and was barely staying ahead of the class in algebra, failed to recognize that Luther was really a very talented mathematician. In particular, she scolded him for working on a combinatorial problem he found interesting when he completed the classroom assignment early, and gives him a B in the class (despite the fact that he got perfect scores on all of the assignments) because of his "uppity" attitude. She also is in charge of the school's honors club, which she convinces Luther to quit by forcing him to bag peanuts for the school's sporting events instead of doing anything intellectually challenging.

Unfortunately, although fictional, all of this seems quite realistic to me. The "fantastical" part of the story is that Luther gets noticed by the school's principal who has a degree in mathematics and knows the chair of the math department at Stanford. He helps Luther get a scholarship to Stanford, where he becomes a mathematician and goes on to win a Fields Medal! (His parents are proud of him, but when his teacher sees the newspaper article announcing that a Butterfield boy has won the Fields Medal, she doesn't remember him -- they all look the same, don't they? -- and ironically speculates that he may only have won because of affirmative action.)

There is a bit of interesting math in the story, in the form of the problems that Luther chooses to work on (a bit of number theory having to do with recognizing multiples of 4 or 8 and a bit of game theory having to do with whether it is always possible to win at Tic-Tac-Toe and some of its generalizations), but mostly it is a social and political allegory. It was published in the Jan 2001 issue of The College Mathematics Journal and reprinted in Gardner's collection "Are Universes Thicker than Blackberries?"

I received a copy of this story in an anonymous, manila envelope...but I can only assume that it was sent by Sandro Caparrini, who has a skill for finding gems like this. Thank you, Sandro!

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Works Similar to Against the Odds
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Sophie's Diary by Dora Musielak
  2. Stand and Deliver by Ramon Menendez
  3. Good Will Hunting by Gus Van Sant (director) / Matt Damon (Screenplay)
  4. Numbers by Dana Dane
  5. Young Archimedes by Aldous Huxley
  6. The Blue Door by Tanya Barfield
  7. Regarding Roderer by Guillermo Martinez
  8. The Wizard by C.S. Godshalk
  9. Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya by Joan Spicci
  10. The Secret Integration by Thomas Pynchon
Ratings for Against the Odds:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)

MotifProdigies, Academia, Math Education,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Logic/Set Theory,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)