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Ghost Dancer (2006)
John Case

The blurb on the cover describes anti-hero Jack Wilson as a "brilliant mathematician" and also a "diabolical madman" in this thriller based on the popular conspiracy theory claiming that Nikola Tesla is responsible for the Tunguska explosion. Although his supposed mathematical ability is frequently mentioned (perhaps to convince the reader that Wilson is smart and has the ability to figure out how to make use of Tesla's ideas to destroy civilization), the book is very short on mathematics or mathematical details.

There are many themes in the book more significant than mathematics. For instance, that Wilson is a Native American and that his allies are Moslem terrorists are both quite significant. However, this website is devoted to mathematics in fiction and so I will focus my attention on a small detail.

At one point, just after he is released from prison, Wilson receives a FedEx package:

(quoted from Ghost Dancer)

Stripping the package open, he found a videocassette box inside and, with it, the winter issue of Documenta Mathematica. With a faint smile, he opened the journal and turned to the title page:


A soft snort of satisfaction propelled him over to the minibar, where he found a chilled split of Veuve Clicquot. Working out the cork with a soft pop, he took a long pull from the bottle. How many federal prisoners, he asked himself, had published articles in mathematics journals over the past year? Had there been another? Almost certainly not. And it wasn't a fluke, either. This was his third publication in the last four years, which would have been good enough for tenure at a lot of univiersities. And his degree wasn't even in mathematics!

Wilson is supposed to have a PhD in engineering. (He is an inventor whose work was considered so dangerous that his ideas were classified by the government, setting up the conflict that is the basis for the plot.) Not all engineers learn advanced mathematics, but I do know of a few whose work in engineering leads them to sufficiently theoretical problems that they could be published in mathematics journals. So, this seems reasonable to me.

In fact, Documenta Mathematica is a real mathematics journal, founded by the German Mathematical Society in 1996 in response to the rising prices of scientific journals. (Its articles are available for free online and the print copies are produced at the lowest possible price.) Although most mathematics journals are produced monthly, it seems that the print version of DM is produced annually, so there would be no "winter issue". Similarly, since there are so many articles in it, the title of Wilson's article would not be on the "title page" but in the table of contents. The title of the article, though meaningless as far as I can tell, has a ring of authentic mathematics to it and does sound like the title of a research article.

I am not aware of any mathematician publishing research articles while in prison. However, there are anecdotes about math research being done in prison. (I was not able to find a reference just now, but didn't Mikhail Gromov supposedly do some of his work in prison?)

A helpful (anonymous) reader has written in with more information about mathematicians working in prisons.

  • Andre Bloch produced all of his mathematical work during a 31 year prison sentence in France.
  • Jean-Victor Poncelet (re)invented projective geometry while a Russian POW 1812-14.
  • Jean Leray invented sheaf theory and spectral sequences while a German POW (1940-45). Leray was actually a PDEist--he switched to topology so the Germans wouldn't think they could use him.
Another fictional mathematician working in prison is in The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl.

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Works Similar to Ghost Dancer
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming
  2. Dear Abbey by Terry Bisson
  3. The Trachtenberg Speed System by Buzz Mauro
  4. Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
  5. The Bishop Murder Case by S.S. van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright)
  6. The Last Enemy by Peter Berry (Screenplay) / Iain B. MacDonald (Director)
  7. The Lure by Bill Napier
  8. The Cipher by John C. Ford
  9. The First Circle by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
  10. Mailman by J. Robert Lennon
Ratings for Ghost Dancer:
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Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)

MotifEvil mathematicians,

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