a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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And He Built a Crooked House (1940)
Robert A. Heinlein
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!

A clever architect designs a house in the shape of the shadow of a tesseract, but it collapses (through the 4th dimension) when an earthquake shakes it into a more stable form (which takes up very little room in our 3-dimensional space.)

This story is often cited as one of the main examples of mathematical fiction. The sad thing is that I once was a judge for a high school science fair in Athens, Georgia and had to judge the project of a young woman who sincerely believed this story to be true and had based her project on it. (Even sadder is the fact that she had been chosen by her high school to be the representative at this statewide contest.) I tried, unsucessfully, to convince her that this had never actually happened, but I guess I'm just not persuasive enough!

Reprinted in the collection Fantasia Mathematica and in The Fantasies of Robert Heinlein. It is (at least at the time I'm writing this) available online for free at this link.

Contributed by Charles Hatfield (with embedded answers from Alex)

I have a number of questions that may be best addressed from a mathematical perspective (I'm a philosophy major, and my logic has failed me here).

First, when the house "collapses" into a 4D tessaract, Teal says that it folded on its joints. Can it be that the structure had 3D hinges that articulated it in four dimensions? I'm trying to imagine a 2D figure that might be articulated in 3D, and failing. Is there a mathematical justification for this event, or is it a plot device?

Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding your question, but would a square not be a good example of a 2D figure that might be articulated in 3D? If we glue 4 toothpicks to a piece of paper in the shape of a square, then we have a 2D figure. To a "flatlander" living inside that piece of paper, it remains a square even if you pick up the piece of paper in three dimensions and bend it at the corners. Perhaps a more apropos example would be a cube made out of toothpicks with corners stuck together with putty. Not only could you pass it THROUGH a 2-dimensional flatland where it would be seen as an object changing shape in time) but you can "collapse" it by squishing it flat and put it all inside that flatland. Does that make sense and answer your question? -Alex

Second, when bizarre things start appearing outside the windows (New York, Oceans, Joshua Tree Park), no explanation is given as to how they came to be there. Could a destabilizing hypercube "sway" over enormous distances? My rudimentary understanding of the figure leads me to believe that such windows would look into the other rooms of the house.

This question is easier to answer. The point is not that the cube "sways" over long distances, but that these distances which seem long when travelled within 3-dimensional space might be much shorter if additional dimensions are available. Consider again the case of the square of toothpicks on a piece of paper. To a flatland creature that lives in the paper, the opposite corners of the square might be very far apart. (The distance in the paper would be the square root of two times the length of the toothpick, which could be hundreds of times the size of the creature.) However, you can bend the paper so that these opposite corners are just microns apart in 3-dimensional space. This is not at all apparent to the creature living in the paper. It would still have to travel the same distance to get there. However, if it could look out "into the third dimension" it could see that the opposite corner now is actually very close! Thus, the point of the story was to say that by taking a shortcut through this house, the distances to these objects on Earth which seem very far apart to us would actually be much less. - Alex

Third, If the house had been built as a partial tessaract, with seven interior rooms and the eighth "inverted" to encompass the outside world, would that anchor be sufficient to keep it in this plane? I have to think that a force pushing a 3D object in the ana or kata directions would meet little or no resistance.

This seems entirely in the realm of speculation. You don't know, for instance, if there is material already in the ana or kata direction which would provide opposition to movement in that direction. (This matter could be the fourth-dimensional part of the objects we already see around us.) One could even speculate on different laws governing inertia in those directions or the presence of a force-field which inhibits motion in that direction. Perhaps the most reasonable assumption, at least to my mind, is the presence of an attractive force (like gravity) which would prevent the kind of problem you propose -- anchoring objects by their intersection with this 3-dimensional slice of the universe. One could propose almost anything. So, your notion that even a tiny force in the ana direction would push something without any resistance is a reasonable hypothesis, but apparently not the one that governs the hypothetical universe described in the story. -Alex

Overall, this story is a charming and engaging tale, well written and featuring a very effective description of the tessaract. Heinlein is a master of his material and his medium, and his excellence shines brightly in this short piece.

Contributed by Ken Miller

I don't know enough about tesseracts to understand if Heinlein is verging upon anything close to accuracy, but the story itself is a very good read.

Contributed by Anonymous

It was mostly okay but the rooms connected incorrectly. When exiting what was the front door, they should have come out of the floor of one of the first floor rooms and when exiting the first floor windows, they should have come out upside-down in the third floor.

Contributed by Michael Russo

"2" is my vote but it fails to relate the extraordinary and expansive effect the story has on the imagination of the reader; it only discribes the extent to which numbers are found or implied in the story.

What was most energizing about this story was how it stimulates and causes images to form as one reads and becomes more and more excited and eager to push on, only to be stopped while daydreaming and speculating about what one has just read and what is to come. Like a wonderful meal we savor each mouthful only to arrive halvway through with a cold plate in front of us. For its math concepts it presents a cornucopia, a feast for the mind. What a shame Rod Serling diden't write a foreword to this piece!

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Works Similar to And He Built a Crooked House
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Narrow Valley by R.A. Lafferty
  2. Space Bender by Edward Rementer
  3. The Ifth of Oofth by Walter Trevis
  4. The Eighth Room by Stephen Baxter
  5. Message Found in a Copy of Flatland by Rudy Rucker
  6. No-Sided Professor by Martin Gardner
  7. The Girl with the Celestial Limb by Pauline Melville
  8. Spaceland by Rudy Rucker
  9. Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein
  10. Simpsons (Episode: Homer3) by John Swarzwelder / Steve Tomkins / David S. Cohen
Ratings for And He Built a Crooked House:
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:
3.88/5 (18 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.01/5 (19 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MotifHigher/Lower Dimensions,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)