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The Penultimate Conjecture (1999)
Leonard Michaels
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for math majors, math grad students (and maybe even math professors) and literati.

This is the most mathematical of Leonard Michaels' seven stories about the brilliant but anti-social UCLA mathematician, Nachman. In it, Nachman attends a conference in San Francisco at which a Swedish mathematician is going to present his proof of a famous conjecture. Nachman is unsure whether he is pleased or jealous that this other mathematician has proved a theorem that he had hoped to prove someday, especially when a relatively unknown Russian mathematician sitting next to him goads him on. Then, during the talk, he realizes that the proof being presented is not correct, and he becomes conflicted as to whether he should tell the speaker about the error.

This story successfully captures for me some of the collegial feeling of a mathematics conference and some of the real tensions that are sure to exist between researchers working on the same topics. It also gives a feeling for the international nature of mathematics research, which is one of my favorite things about it. Tellingly, the only things in the story that I really found difficult to believe were the discussion of how many numbers are Nachman's "friends" and the description of the blue suit worn by Chertoff. (Who wears a suit to a math conference?!?) In other words, this story is one of the rare pieces of mathematical fiction that strikes me as being rather realistic. (Of course, I would not want a reader to be fooled into thinking that mathematicians are necessarily as socially inept as Nachman...but one particular mathematician could be.)

There are no real details given about what the conjecture might be, aside from the fact that it had its origins in the work of the World War II codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

This story was first published in the February 1, 1999 issue of The New Yorker and was reprinted in Michaels' posthumous collection. In addition, Arion Press published The Nachman Stories in a separate and very expensive book.

Contributed by Anonymous

I read this story when it came out. And I think of it each time I hear the word penultimate.

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Works Similar to The Penultimate Conjecture
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Nachman at the Races by Leonard Michaels
  2. Herr Doctor's Wondrous Smile by Vladimir Tasic
  3. Cryptology by Leonard Michaels
  4. Lemma 1 by Helga Königsdorf
  5. Nachman by Leonard Michaels
  6. The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem by Rinne Groff
  7. Leaning Towards Infinity by Sue Woolfe
  8. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
  9. The Tolman Trick by Manil Suri
  10. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
Ratings for The Penultimate Conjecture:
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:
4/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (2 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Academia, Proving Theorems,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)