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The Coincidence Engine (2011)
Sam Leith

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A tongue-in-cheek, easy-read, quite enjoyable romp of a story about a reclusive mathematician named “Bancharski”, a play on the names of mathematicians Banach and Tarski (unfortunately, Banach-Tarski theorem does not make an appearance. A shame). Bancharski is closely modeled after Alexandre Grothendieck, even using his complete renouncement of Mathematics, creation of rambling memoirs, protest against military funding of mathematics, etc. For good measure, the author floats a wild idea as to what happened to him at the very end.

There are many ingredients mixed up in this soup:

  • Bancharski supposedly invents a probability modifier, a “machine that affects probability”, a “Coincidence Engine”. It might well be a feedback loop created by the leakage of the thoughts of his extremely powerful and “cracked” mind
  • An ultra-secretive agency of the government, “The Directorate of Extremely Improbable” (DEI) thinks he has “weaponized the observer's paradox”
  • The DEI (their motto, “Ignota Ignoti” — “Unknown Unknowns”, with a hat-tip to Rumsfeld) encounters a strange photo their satellite has taken. In the middle of a farm-field near Atlanta appeared a Boeing 737 plane, miraculously assembled by a hurricane out of scrap metal — a prank MIT engineering students would pull off. It's a plane that does not exist — at least no agency has any record of it. Before DEI agents can get there, a second hurricane destroys the plane.
  • DEI has also intercepted a cryptic message, “The coincidence engine is starting to work”, a message from a fiction novel written 10 years ago by an MIT Math professor.
  • The device appears to have been stolen by a Math student, Alex Smart, who is either on the run or flying out to propose to his long-distance girlfriend.
  • A female mathematician, Isla Holder, appears to have a special connection to Bancharski. And is a key component to the disappearance of the device
  • Agent from DEI are trying recover the device from Alex and protect him from the agents of a private intelligence outfit, MIC
  • There is counter-espionage story, a stock market story and a story about parallel universes.
  • And everyone is chasing everyone else.
The book makes for a good read due to all of these, though I was disappointed with the weak ending. The book has cute references sprinkled along the way, like, “Set of all sets”, a reference to a joke about “Zorn's Lemon” , a character named “Porlock” as an unwanted intruder (as it turns out), and sentences like:

(quoted from The Coincidence Engine)

“Idea of using fluctuations in the ambient spread of probabilities to track the device.”

“Little subtle ripples of unlikelihood, little freaks, unexpected variations from the mean could be discerned”

“Probability doesn't itself exist, necessarily, at least not in the sense people might understand it.”

“Probability isn't something you can affect, like a magnet affects iron filings. When you load dice, you're not affecting probability, you're affecting physics. Probability isn't a force. It doesn't DO anything.”

“I'm a professor of mathematics, not of yet-to-be-discovered Physics”

Contributed by Hauke Reddmann

The book is another tragic case of a brilliant idea with a so-so realization. Had the author resisted the urge to write "high literature" and concentrated on his strengths (i.e. writing a SF black comedy - zany scenes like the one with the falling piano are the best of the whole book) maybe our library would have put him indeed in the SF dungeon, somewhat of a letdown for aspiring authors. But at least one person (I) would have enjoyed the result much more.

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Works Similar to The Coincidence Engine
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  2. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
  3. Bellwether by Connie Willis
  4. The Anomaly [L'Anomalie] by Hervé Le Tellier
  5. Bonnie's Story: A Blonde's Guide to Mathematics by Janis Hill
  6. Euler's Equation by Neil Hudson
  7. The Pexagon by D.J. Rozell
  8. Futurama (Episode: 2-D Blacktop) by Michael Rowe (writer) / Raymie Muzquiz (director)
  9. Futurama (Episode: The Prisoner of Benda) by Ken Keeler (writer) / Stephen Sandoval (director)
  10. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
Ratings for The Coincidence Engine:
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:
1/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (2 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)