MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Off Day! (1953)
Al Feldstein (writer) / Jack Kamen (artist)
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
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Contributed by Lapo Fanciullo

Believe it or not, this Weird Science story is essentially a lecture on the law of large numbers.

A very worried college professor tells his class he's just witnessed the failure of one of the most essential laws of nature: the law of large numbers. He then proceeds to illustrate this law, obviously in a simplified (oversimplified?) version since this is a comic book: if you flip a coin, you can get heads or tails. But if you flip it one hundred times, you'll get fifty heads and fifty tails, or at least similar numbers. If the LLN failed, explains the professor, it could cause catastrophes: if every year Miami is visited by, say, 30,000 tourists, without the LLN it could happen that every citizen of the US decides to go to Miami at once, chaos ensuing form the forming mob.

(Warning: spoiler incoming) We discover that the professor brought the subject up because of the 379 students of the course, with an average 360 attending every day, only one has shown up: an apparent breach of the LLN, says the professor. The only attendant, anyway, tells him not to worry: he reveals he's actually the janitor, and it's Sunday.

Also, after reading your post about Robert M. Coates's "The Law", I tried to understand if what was described in "Off Day!" was actually the law of averages under a false name. I believe that what was explained in the comic was closer to the real law of large numbers, even if it was dumbed down to flip-the-coin examples (it was repeatedly stressed that it takes a large number of events, while according to Wikipedia the law of averages expresses 'the belief that outcomes of a random event shall "even out" within a small sample').

Nonetheless, the outcomes of the LLN (or rather the lack of it) explained in the comic are far from being rigorously exposed, and may be nearer in spirit to the wrongly intuitive law of averages than to the mathematical exactness you certainly prefer to present in your site.

Off day! was published in Weird Science #17 (jan/feb 1953), written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Jack Kamen.

It seems to me that stories like this and The Law are based more on a misunderstanding of mathematics than on anything mathematical. Certainly, the "law of large numbers" (a real mathematical result in probability) makes no promises that a random variable will always stay very close to the mean. Individual values far from the mean are rare, but not impossible! This seems closer in spirit to the "law of averages", a statement used incorrectly by non-experts as if it was a mathematical result.

(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 Off Day!
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Gigantic Fluctuation by Arkady Strugatsky / Boris Strugatsky
  2. The Law by Robert M. Coates
  3. A Very Good Year by Jack C. Haldeman (II)
  4. It was the Monster from the Fourth Dimension by Al Feldstein
  5. I padroni del caos by A. Russo (writer) / Esposito~Brothers (artists)
  6. Tre per zero by T. Sclavi (writer) / B. Brindisi (artist)
  7. Geometria dell'apocalisse by Marco Abate (writer) / R. Bogagni (artist)
  8. The Sinister Researches of C.P. Ransom by Homer C. Nearing~Jr.
  9. Do the Math: A Novel of the Inevitable by Philip Persinger
  10. Mathematics of the Heart by Kefi Chadwick (playwright) / Donnacadh O’Briain (director)
Ratings for Off Day!:
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 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHumorous,
MotifAcademia,
TopicProbability/Statistics,
MediumComic Book,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)