MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Train Brains / The Runaway Train (Donald Duck) (1956)
Carl Barks
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Donald Duck's nephews -- Huey, Dewey and Louie -- are trying to earn a merit badge in engineering for the Junior Woodchucks by working out a complicated problem involving toy trains.

(quoted from Train Brains / The Runaway Train (Donald Duck))

"We'll never be promoted to S.U.E.O.T.U. [Supreme Unsurpassable Engineers of the Universe] in the Junior Woodchucks if we can't figure how to keep two trains from colliding! This engine's wheels travel 3 1/2 inches each time around!"

"And it's 137 inches from the water tank to the switch head!"

"How many turns per second must it roll? Mm! Mm!"

The problem becomes quite complicated as they have to take into account the curvature of the track and the slippage of the wheels.

Then, by coincidence, an announcement is overheard on the television that Uncle Donald is watching in the next room:

(quoted from Train Brains / The Runaway Train (Donald Duck))

"LISTENERS EVERYWHERE, ATTENTION! WE MUST FIND PROF. BRAINWHIZ, THE GREAT MATHEMATICIAN, AT ONCE! ONLY HE CAN SAVE HUNDREDS OF LIVES IN THE NEXT FEW MINUTES! A RUNAWAY LOCOMOTIVE IS ROARING DOWN THE SIERRA GRADE, HEADED FOR A CRASH WITH THE LIMITED SOMEWHERE IN THE STORM-SWEPT MOUNTAINS..."

Professor Brainwhiz is unable to solve the problem, as is the computer at the army base, but the three ducklings save the day.

Much thanks to Erik Holst in Sweden who pointed out this story and its mathematical content to me. Erik points out that the math problem solved by the kids is very difficult (even the "great mathematician" could not do it) and so was not an elementary school level problem. However, the colliding trains is such a classical example of what we call a "word problem" in American school culture that I am certain the author was making an intentional reference to mathematics education. Either it was an attempt at (un)subtle propaganda (to get the children reading to think "Hey, math problems really are important!") or just a joke (wouldn't it be funny if some kids really had to work out one of these word problems to stop some trains from colliding!?!) But, maybe other readers disagree with me. What do you think? Please use the links below to enter your comments and votes.

There is more information on this comic at inducks.org.

Contributed by Robert W. Franson

This story not only shows clear mathematical thinking by Huey, Dewey and Louie, it also shows effective action under pressure. A good story.

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(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 Train Brains / The Runaway Train (Donald Duck)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Donald in Mathmagic Land by Hamilton Luske (director)
  2. Math Curse by Jon Scieszka / Lane Smith (illustrator)
  3. Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us) by Brian Hamill
  4. Kim Possible (Episode: Mathter and Fervent) by Jim Peronto (script)
  5. Math Patrol by TV Ontario
  6. Sir Cumference and the... by Cindy Neuschwander
  7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster / Jules Feiffer (Illustrator)
  8. MathNet by Childrens~Television~Workshop
  9. Mathmakers by TV Ontario
  10. Lost in Lexicon: An Adventure in Words and Numbers by Pendred Noyce
Ratings for Train Brains / The Runaway Train (Donald Duck):
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:
3.5/5 (2 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
3/5 (2 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHumorous, Children's Literature,
MotifFuture Prediction through Math, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful, Math Education,
Topic
MediumComic Book,

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Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)