a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Left or Right (1951)
Martin Gardner
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Originally published in Esquire magazine in 1951, this story about a space ship "flipping" through the fourth dimension has rarely been seen because Gardner later worried that it was physically inaccurate. It concerns the crew of a spaceship on an important mission who accidentally have "tumbled" in the fourth dimension. They fear that -- like a piece of paper which is picked up off a table top, flipped, and put back down -- their orientation has been reversed. I believe that, as Gardner later concluded, such a flip would have more drastic consequences than those described in the story. Gardner has expressed concern that the "flipped" astronauts would be composed of anti-matter (which would be immediately and disastrously apparent). Moreover, as was shown just five years after Gardner's story, the laws of physics do not possess a left-right symmetry. (See the NIST's account account of this famous discovery of the "Fall of Parity".)
The story was republished in Mathenauts, which is good because despite the physical faux pas, it is a really well written and interesting bit of mathematical fiction!

Contributed by Matt McIrvin

It's been a very long time since I read this story, so I don't have much opinion about the text itself. However, I do have a critique of Gardner's critique, which has long bothered me, because I don't think it's quite correct.

In particle physics, the operations C (charge conjugation), P (parity, basically left-right mirror reversal), and T (time reversal) are considered separate, so there's nothing preventing us from considering a mirror-flip without turning the particles into antiparticles. Of course we have no idea what physics in higher spatial dimensions might be like. But there's no reason that a mirror-flip of a spaceship would necessarily involve C as well as just P.

How would this affect the story? Well, regardless of what Gardner says, it doesn't mean that the fourth-dimensional mirror-flip would necessarily involve matter-antimatter reversal as well. That would presumably depend on details of the fictional higher-dimensional physics that are not known to us in the real world.

But it does mean that if there is a mirror-flip without matter-antimatter reversal, it would be *detectable* to the ship's inhabitants without comparison to the outside world, through certain physical experiments involving weak-force-mediated decays.

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Works Similar to Left or Right
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Into the Fourth by Adam Hull Shirk
  2. The Mobius Trail by George Smith
  3. The Heart on the Other Side by George Gamow
  4. Technical Error by Arthur C. Clarke
  5. Turnabout by Gordon R. Dickson
  6. The Plattner Story by Herbert George Wells
  7. The Image in the Mirror by Dorothy Leigh Sayers
  8. Gödel geht [Gödel's Exit] by Andreas Findig
  9. The Island of Five Colors by Martin Gardner
  10. The Cube Root of Conquest by Rog Phillips
Ratings for Left or Right:
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:
3/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifHigher/Lower Dimensions,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)