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Starman Jones (1953)
Robert A. Heinlein
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

These adventures of Max Jones, a boy who runs away from Ozark home and works his way up the ranks of a starship is a nice example of classical science fiction as well as being a bit mathematical.

The book explains that astrogators -- the mathematicians who plot ships courses -- are of tremendous importance in space travel. In fact, it explains that although officers can be mathematicians, physicists or businessmen, only the mathematicians stand a chance of becoming captains.

Jones' mathematical connections play significant roles in the plot. It is because his uncle was a "great mathematician" that Jones is initially able to go into space at all. Then, it is because his own mathematical skill is recognized (from his success at 3-D chess) that he is not punished when it is discovered that he broke some rules in getting onboard. Finally, when the aging captain makes a computational error in his own astronavigation, Jones catches the error and points it out. Unfortunately, nobody believes him and the ship winds up being "lost in space".

The book has a nice discussion of geometry of the method of space travel that they use. A friend asks Jones about "space warps", to which he angrily replies that they do not use warps (as if he knows that this is an SF cliche and is tired of hearing about it.) Rather, he explains, they make use of the parts of space that are flat. He explains (which is quite in agreement with our modern view of the physics of spacetime) that near stars and planets, space has non-trivial curvature...but out in the emptiness it is almost flat.

(quoted from Starman Jones)

"...we're heading out to a place where space is really flat, not just mildly curved the way itis near a star. Anomalies are always flat, otherwise they couldn't fit together -- be congruent."

She looked puzzled. "Come again?"

"Look, Eldreth, how far did you go in mathematics?"

"Me? I flunked improper fractions. Miss Mimsey was very vexed with me...But you told me that all you went to was a country high school and didn't get to finish at that. Huh?"

"Yes, but I learned from my uncle. He was a great mathematician. Well, he didn't have any theorems named after him -- but a great one just the same, I think." He paused. "I don't know exactly how to tell you; it takes equations. Say! Could you lend me that scarf you're wearing for a minute?"


It was a photoprint showing a stylized picture of the solar system....

"Here's Jupiter. to go from Mars to Jupiter you have to go from here to here, don't you?"


"But suppose I fold it so that Mars is on top of Jupiter? What's to prevent just stepping across?"

"Nothing, I guess. Except that what works for that scarf wouldn't work very well in practice. Would it?"

"No, not that near to a star. But it works fine after you back away from a star quite a distance. You see, that's just what an anomaly is, a place where space is folded back on itself, turning a long distance into no distance at all."

"Then space is warped."

"No, no, no! Look, I just folded your scarf. I didn't stretch it out of shape! I didn't even wrinkle it. Space is the same way; it's crumpled like a piece of waste paper - but it's not warped, just crumpled. Through some extra dimensions, of course."

Great story and nice mathematical references. Thanks to John Lange for suggesting its inclusion on this website!

BTW, the entry on this book in Wikipedia suggests that it is intended as a response to Gulliver's Travels, another work of mathematical fiction (which presents a much less positive view of math)!

Contributed by Anonymous

The ability to do memorize pages of equations and then to translate base 10 numbers into binary code is central to the time travel theme of this book. Max has the special memory ability, however he is quickly shown that memorization without the knowledge of what to do with the information gains you nothing.

I really like that the point is driven home that analysis, thought, and synthesis is what saves the entire ship in the end.

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Works Similar to Starman Jones
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Mathenauts by Norman Kagan
  2. Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
  3. The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein
  4. And He Built a Crooked House by Robert A. Heinlein
  5. Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Blowups Happen by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein
  9. Star, Bright by Mark Clifton
  10. Left or Right by Martin Gardner
Ratings for Starman Jones:
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:
4.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifMath as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Mathematical Physics,

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