MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Law (1947)
Robert M. Coates
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In this story, the "law of averages" ceases to apply (so that, for instance, everyone in Manhattan decides to drive across the Triborough Bridge on the same evening). As a result, it is necessary for the legislature to make it into an actual law, the details and consequences of which are considered.

This story first appeared in The New Yorker, December 29 1947 (thus justifying its overly verbose discussion of NYC geography) and has been reprinted in mathematical anthologies including Mathematical Magpie. I have known about it for quite a long time, but did not add it to this database before because I do not consider it to be particularly mathematical. In particular, I would like to point out that the law of averages is not a mathematical fact (though it is often confused with the law of large numbers). Instead, it seems to reinforce a misunderstanding of statistics. Still, since it has been deemed to be an example of mathematical fiction by other experts, and since visitors do come to this website seeking this story, I will consider myself to have been overruled and include it here now.

Note that it can be found online for free as a portion of the Google Books copy of J Newman's "World of Mathematics".

(Thank you to Feargus G. MacIntyre for reminding me of this story and pointing out the Google Books link above.)

Contributed by L. Callis

This short story is a absurdist's idea of reality. Its point is to satirize the law of aveages which can easily be broken by any abnormal data. "The Law" makes its point.

Contributed by Levana Taylor

Dear Professor Kasman,

I have been reading through your website, and came across the description of the 1947 story "The Law" (which I have read, but far too long ago to remember). It put me in mind of a 1954 essay by Joseph Wood Krutch (a naturalist), "How Probable Is Probability?", which begins:

"Some years ago an ingenious journalist filled his column with speculation about the people who would jump from the Brooklyn Bridge during the twelve months to come. At the moment probably none of them knew that he was going to have to do anything of the kind. Probably at the moment each would have been appalled by the fate in store for him. But somebody would be compelled to jump because statistics prove that somebody always does.

"When the time came each would suppose that he had his private reasons. But the real reason would be that the Law must be obeyed. The question is merely: Who will be picked out by the God of Mathematics to demonstrate His infallibility? Will it be, perhaps, you or I? In any event it will be some of us, and the number will not be much larger or much smaller than usual. Figures don't lie and some will have to be sacrificed to prove that they do not."

The coincidence of the writings of Robert M. Coates, the unnamed jokester columnist, and Joseph Wood Krutch seems to indicate that the topic of the Law of Averages was "in the air" about that time. Krutch's essay suggests some reasons why. This was the era when market research, polling, viewership ratings (Nielsen began business in 1950), and such like really took off (to my surprise, none of this really existed much before the 1920s). Likewise, social scientists were in the process of developing statistical tools for their research (done since the 18th century but greatly expanded in the 20th). So you have the public starting to become aware that their lives are being described by numbers and that policymakers and marketers are using these numbers. No wonder that anxiety arose, aided by a shaky understanding of statistics. Krutch attempted to clear up some misunderstandings, to show what the fallacy of the introductory example was. But he concludes that "an individual is free, but the group of which he is a part is not. Any given man's destiny is to some extent in his own hands; but the destiny of mankind is predetermined."

Anyway, I'll bet there were yet other writers grappling with that issue in similar ways at that time, since the social and scientific factors I mentioned all came together then.

Yours sincerely, Levana Taylor

Contributed by Charles R Greathouse IV

I agree with your analysis -- the only 'mathematics' in the story is the fictitious Law of Averages. Still, I do think that it is appropriate for inclusion, even if the math isn't right. It is fiction, after all.

More information about this work can be found at another page on this Website.
(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 The Law
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Devil You Don't by Keith Laumer
  2. A Very Good Year by Jack C. Haldeman (II)
  3. Inflexible Logic by Russell Maloney
  4. Off Day! by Al Feldstein (writer) / Jack Kamen (artist)
  5. The Year of the Jackpot by Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Gigantic Fluctuation by Arkady Strugatsky / Boris Strugatsky
  7. To The Power Against by Carrie Smith (writer) / Stephanie Lantry (Artist)
  8. Probability Storm by Julian Reid
  9. Robbins v. New York by Colin Adams
  10. The Circle of Zero by Stanley G. Weinbaum
Ratings for The Law:
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:
1.4/5 (5 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
2.6/5 (5 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
Motif
TopicProbability/Statistics,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)