MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Three Days and a Child (1970)
Abraham B. Yehoshua
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

Dov, an Israeli mathematics graduate student, watches the young child of a woman he knew at a kibbutz. He alternates between loving the child as he still loves the woman and intentionally endangering the child (for example, leaving the child untreated with a fever of 103 in a room with a poisonous snake).

Several references are made to the difficulties he is having with his thesis:

(quoted from Three Days and a Child)

I have been stuck, ever since the spring, within a self-made labyrinth laid open to a suddenly discovered logical contradiction. I need inspiration, a special kind of light. As though I were writing a novel. Every step in working out an equations becomes a painful burden.

Furthermore, the story also frequently discusses mathematics education as Dov is working as a teacher while also completing his thesis. He teaches mathematics "to two fifth year classes majoring in literature". (I do not know enough about Israeli school to know how old the students are supposed to be...apparently many are teenage girls.) Dov says of their mathematical abilities:

(quoted from Three Days and a Child)

Nevertheless, they learned mathematics.

They did tolerably well, on average, though they were never inspired with any enthusiasm in the working out of a problem. They would think mechanically with their literary brains.

(Is this sarcasm from an author who thinks that, in fact, it is mathematical brains that think mechanically?) Similar criticism of the inability of "nature lovers" to appreciate mathematics follows. At one point, Dov nonsensically mentions "a blackboard abounding with quadratic equations of the first degree", which could possibly be a mistranslation as the story was originally written in Hebrew

One can certainly see why Yehoshua is praised as "one of Israel's world-class writers". This is a powerful, deep and beautifully written story.

But, what does it say about mathematics? I can only imagine that the character's disdain for his students and lack of compassion for the child left under his care are intended to be recognized as the sort of things that mathematicians would do. I can certainly name other works of mathematical fiction in which this stereotype appears (see, for example, Antonia's Line and Old Fillikin).

I am uncertain of this story's publication history. I see that it appeared in English translation in 1970 in an anthology of the same name, but cannot find any indication of it being published in the original Hebrew prior to 1975. (This cannot be right, however, since I see that it was made into a short film in 1967!) If anyone can help me determine the original publication date of "Shlosha Yamim V'yeled" I would be grateful.

(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 Three Days and a Child
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
  2. Touch the Water, Touch the Wind by Amos Oz
  3. Antonia's Line by Marleen Gorris
  4. The Geometry of Love by John Cheever
  5. Het gemillimeterde hoofd (The Cropped Head) by Gerrit Krol
  6. Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth
  7. The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
  8. Mefisto: A Novel by John Banville
  9. Fractions by Buzz Mauro
  10. The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri by David Bajo
Ratings for Three Days and a Child:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)
.

Categories:
Genre
MotifEvil mathematicians, Math as Cold/Dry/Useless, Math Education,
Topic
MediumShort Stories, Films,

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Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)