MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Coconuts (1926)
Ben Ames Williams
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Contributed by Vijay Fafat

The story is a very nicely written tale of one man, Wadlin, whose only passion in life is mathematics - numbers, puzzles, Diophantine equations ("indeterminates"), statistics. As the author describes it in snippets:

(quoted from Coconuts)

"The multiplication table to him was sweeter than the Song of Songs [...] To divide a number into its factors delighted him [..] An incorrect equation was to his eyes the ugliest thing in nature. [...] To his eyes, 2-4-6-8-10 was a thing of beauty; 3-6-9 had an exotic charm".

Wadlin works for a construction company owned by an honest proprietor, Dean Story. Story's rival, Marr, has a much larger company in the same field and he's unscrupulous, to boot. Marr's one weakness is a passion for numbers and a belief in his own mathematical abilities far larger than his actual capability in the field.

The two companies end up as bidders for a hospital project and Wadlin comes to understand that Marr might use under-handed tactics to outbid Story. He arrranges matters so that the night before the bidding, Marr gets tangled up in a Diophantine puzzle which he's unable to solve. As he loses himself in the intricacies of the puzzle, staying up all night, he ends up missing the auction. Honesty and Math win, hurray! This has shades of Nelson Bond's "The Geometrics of Johnny Day" (published much later), which also has a math problem flummoxing dishonest competition.

The puzzle itself is the famous "coconuts" puzzle, which has been analyzed in detail in Martin Gardner's "The Colossal Book of Puzzles" .

Originally published in "The Saturday Evening Post" Oct 9 1926. Appears in the Collection Mathematical Magpie.

More information about this work can be found at another page on this Website.
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Works Similar to Coconuts
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Geometrics of Johnny Day by Nelson Bond
  2. The Devil and Simon Flagg by Arthur Porges
  3. A. Botts and the Moebius Strip by William Hazlett Upson
  4. Stand-In by Tay Garnett
  5. Refund by Fritz Karinthy (original) / Percival Wilde (English Adaptation)
  6. The Papers of A.J. Wentworth, B.A. by Humphry Francis Ellis
  7. The Chair of Philanthromathematics by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
  8. Mathematician Proof by Ralph Ellison de Castro
  9. Paul Bunyan versus the Conveyor Belt by William Hazlett Upson
  10. Odile by Raymond Queneau
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Categories:
GenreHumorous,
Motif
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)