MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Dude, can you count? (2010)
Christian Constanda
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Utilizing the entertaining contrivance of an extraterrestrial who visits human math conferences to evaluate our intelligence, Constanda tells us what he thinks is wrong with math education today. Following each chapter in which the narrator, presumably Constanda himself, encounters the alien at various conferences and discusses the state of the world (with an emphasis on mathematics), there are non-fictional "appendices" which explain the mathematics underlying the discussion.

Constanda has quite strong opinions about math education. He views calculus reform, teacher's unions and government intrusion in educational standards as being responsible for what he sees as the sorry state of education in the world today. He also has biases about language (he seems very upset that some people might say "Mary only drinks water at lunch" when they mean that Mary does not drink anything other than water at lunch), about the real numbers (he is certain that the real numbers are the numbers needed to describe the universe, whereas I consider it possible either that the universe is truly discrete and so can be adequately described with the rationals or that the universe necessarily involves complex or quaternionic quantities, each of which can find support in some physical theories), and so on.

I was really optimistic about this book at the start. I thought it sounded like a clever idea and enjoyed the first encounter between J.J. Moon (whose home is near one of the Jovian moons) and the mathematician narrator. Yet, I find that I cannot strongly recommend this book. The problem is not that the author is very opinionated. I agree with some of his opinions and disagree with others, and in any case he is entitled to have his opinions. The question is, however, whether this format is a good way to express them.

One problem with Dude, can you count? is purely due to the author's writing style, and could or should have been addressed in editing. This is the fact that J.J. and the narrator sound a bit too much alike. Rather than sounding like a conversation between Constanda and someone else, it comes across sounding as if he's having a conversation with himself. Of course, that is in fact what is happening, but I wish he had masked it a little better.

Since the author is trying to convince us to agree with his opinions, he does offer arguments and explanations. However, I am left with the feeling that rather than using the concept of the alien as a form of entertainment to get us to read the book, it is used instead as an unfair part of these arguments. That is, I feel that he is cheating. Consider, for instance, the drolly named VOTSIT, a device the aliens use to record interviews with people. The VOTSIT, as we learn through an example, forces the interviewee to answer truthfully. Then, when a calculus reform supporter is "interviewed" in the book, he is presented saying the things Constanda imagines such a person would say under the influence of this machine. This allows him to set up a "straw man" opponent. Similarly, having an alien bring us a list of ten mathematical commandments seemingly elevates Constanda's ideas beyond just the opinions of one respected math professor to an almost religious level.

Of course, a reader should be intelligent enough to remember that this is fiction, there is no VOTSIT and that everything is being written by Constanda. But, I felt that the science fiction aspect of this book did not do enough to keep it entertaining and served mostly to attempt to add weight to the arguments.

Many of the mathematical curiosities and jokes are things I've encountered before in my years as a math student, postdoc and professor. The book would have been more enjoyable for me, of course, if I was seeing them for the first time. Probably, the book was not really aimed at me. Still, I wonder whether the author has too low of an opinion of his audience. He explains in the preface that he has decided to err on the side of supplying too many footnotes, but I could not help but be offended on behalf of all readers of the book that he thought we might need a footnote to explain who Shakespeare was.

It was partly because Constanda seems to be talking down to his readers that this book kept me thinking about elitism. Personally, I agree with the author that the politically popular viewpoint that our schools should ensure that every student succeeds can lead only to lowered standards. Still, although we cannot act as if every student has equal scholastic potential, it is also possible to go too far in the opposite direction. Once one imagines the existence of a hierarchy of abilities, it becomes very easy for prejudices and elitism to become entrenched. There is certainly a hint of this in the notion that (according to the alien's criteria) a person can be assigned a low intelligence rating merely because of their profession, and I fear that Constanda's reaction to the swinging of the pendulum too far in the direction of presumed equality may itself be too far in the other direction. (At least, that is my opinion, though I do not have any extraterrestrial corroboration for that belief.)

Perhaps the world would be a better place if everyone took Christian Constanda's messages to heart. As I've said, I do agree with many of his opinions. A serious book that presented convincing evidence for these viewpoints would be welcome. An entertaining, humorous book that contains interesting mathematical tidbits and conveyed a few of these ideas along the way would also be nice. However, at least to me, this book was neither of those. Rather, it was a diatribe that was difficult to take seriously since the author seems a bit too curmudgeonly (do I really need to be terribly upset when I ask someone "How are you?" and they reply "I'm good"?), a bit too condescending, and because the arguments presented in the book rely too heavily on alien knowledge and technology.

Contributed by Christian Constanda

Alex,

I have read your review of Dude and found it interesting. As you said yourself, we are all entitled to our opinions, and if we happen to see certain things differently, this can only make debate more lively and life more exciting.

Let me start by saying that I am in full agreement with three of your statements.

First, you are right to suspect that the book is not addressed to professional (academic) mathematicians - it is mainly for those who know some basic math and would like to learn more about it. This is reflected, inter alia, in my choice of title and the book format: short chapters, puzzles and jokes that are largely unknown to non-mathematicians (but very familiar to the likes of us), and "appendices" clearly designed for a reader who is not overly skilled in the handling of fundamental mathematical concepts. Sadly, for a segment of that class of readership Shakespeare is no longer a household name. Those with roots in proper education and culture, acquired at good schools and/or in the family, find it utterly inconceivable that a school graduate might not know who Shakespeare was. Others, less fortunate, appear to have been shortchanged by today's instructional reality. Before I finalized the manuscript, I wanted to get a measure of the educational/cultural level of the new generation and, to that end, I gave an anonymous informal multiple-choice test to a bunch of undergraduates, which included a question about Shakespeare's identity. You can imagine my shock when I saw that 15% failed to circle the correct answer!! So, with great reluctance, the Bard of Avon was sent down to footnote land.

Second, your comment on there being no stylistic difference between me and JJ when we talk to each other is quite correct. In Dude's original draft, my lines were more colloquial, with JJ's as you see them now, sober and to the point. But since this made the book resemble too much a work of pure fiction (Springer is a scientific publisher and does not do that genre), I had to adjust the text accordingly. Strongly opinionated? Guilty as charged! However, I warn the reader about this in the Preface. And I make no apology for it: I firmly believe that if you feel very passionately about something, you should not be afraid to stand up and be counted.

Third, you call some of my arguments unfair because they are supported by a kind of cheating. Of course they are. As a published writer of fiction yourself, you should admit that writing fiction may easily be construed as a form of cheating: the author creates characters and puts in their mouths the words that get his message out. In this sense, the VOTSIT is indeed my main cheating - and satirical - tool because it allows me to make the guilty party utter the truth (as I see it) about their guilt.

And now, two things that chagrin me a little.

First, I am baffled by the fact that you don't consider the book humorous. In my view and intention, Dude is constructed from three main ingredients: humor, satire, and pedagogy. Almost everything I say or describe in order to illustrate the lack of logic in various aspects of everyday life, as opposed to mathematics, is - sometimes grossly, even grotesquely - exaggerated. This includes the facetiously framed acronyms and commandments, and the diatribes against the misuse of the language. (I have not throttled anyone who answers “How are you?” with “I’m good.” Yet.) It seems that our tastes in humor are not exactly on the same page, which is to be expected among readers.

Last - but definitely not least - Dude, as I mentioned earlier, is not really a book of fiction. Its best description was given in the Preface, where I called it a conversational primer about mathematics. Therefore, it would seem unfair to have it judged by the standards applied to fiction. The ET presence and the VOTSIT are merely devices that allow me to make the narrative less monotonous and to inject humor. There is no action, no plot twists, and no detailed presentation of characters or surroundings - only talk. In this respect - keeping things in proportion, of course - Dude may bear a vague resemblance to Plato's Socratic Dialogues: both pose questions and make comments through a contrived proxy; unlike the Dialogues, though, my book also provides answers, which qualifies it as a direct teaching vehicle.

I will close by saying that I very much appreciate your taking the time to read my book and write such an honest, thoughtful, comprehensive, and well-articulated review of it. It seems that what I said in the epilogue is being achieved: the main aim of Dude is to make people talk about the issues, whether they agree with me or not.

Best personal wishes,

Christian

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Works Similar to Dude, can you count?
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Report from the Ambassador to Cida-2 by Clifton Cunningham
  2. Conversations on Mathematics with a Visitor from Outer Space by David Ruelle
  3. A Foundation in Wisdom by Robert Loyd Watson
  4. Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer
  5. Infinities by John Barrow
  6. Hilbert's Hotel by Ian Stewart
  7. The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek] by Kurd Lasswitz
  8. On the Quantum Theoretic Implications of Newton's Alchemy by Alex Kasman
  9. Coffee, Love and Matrix Algebra by Gary Ernest Davis
  10. Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory by Rudy Rucker
Ratings for Dude, can you count?:
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)
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Literary Quality:
1/5 (2 votes)
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Categories:
GenreHumorous, Science Fiction, Didactic,
MotifAliens, Math Education,
TopicReal Mathematics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)