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The Secret Number (2000)
Igor Teper
Highly Rated!

In this very cute story, a mathematician who believes that there is an integer between 3 and 4 tries to convince his psychiatrist that he is not crazy. The idea is not very deep, but it is well handled and the story has the pacing of a good pulp SF or Twilight Zone story.

It was originally published in Strange Horizons in November 2000, and since it is now available online I strongly encourage you to give it a try. What have you got to lose?

Much thanks to Roee Shenberg for writing to bring this story to my attention!

Contributed by Charlie foxtrot

If it was a joke it would have been funny. The math is incoherent and the writing hokey and cliche. The basic idea makes it seem like the author wanted very hard to rip off pi (the movie) but didn't have the mathematical understanding to come up with a meaningful mathematical mcguffin. The author clearly doesn't understand the meaning of the word integer or the principle of induction or he would have come up with a better concept than an integer between 3 and 4 which is utterly incoherent.

The best I can say is it was quite short.

Charlie, I disagree with your remarks, but respect your right to have a different opinion. I think the author definitely appreciates the fact that the idea of an integer between 3 and 4 is inconsistent with the usual axioms of arithmetic (e.g. Peano's Axioms). I found it entertaining to be forced to suspend disbelief for a while. (Try to approach this story with the same mindset that you would use for Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of don't have to think it is realistically possible for it to be enjoyable.) Moreover, one has to keep in mind that we might be wrong about those axioms. They themselves might be inconsistent. (As Gödel showed us, we can never prove they are consistent...and so we face the possibility that they contain an inconsistency we have not noticed.) And besides, even if Peano's Axioms are consistent, that does not mean that they apply to the physical universe. (BTW I did not count your vote of "1" for mathematical content for this work of fiction. The mathematical content vote is supposed to record how significant mathematics is to the work, not how accurately it is portrayed. I have been forced to give high mathematical content ratings to works of fiction I hated as much as you despise this one simply because they were about mathematics, even if the math that was there was completely wrong. In this case, the work is most definitely about mathematics, more so than many other works listed in this database.)

A student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Colin Levy, has made a very nice short film based on this story. Aside from being well acted and directed, the film adds quite a bit. (Apparently, Teper contributed to the writing of the script as well.) The tense shot of the psychiatrist in the elevator as it passes from the fourth to the third floor was nice, and I like the Flatland-like reference of the ant crawling on the diagram of a wormhole. However, I am torn between liking the extra dramatic twist that was added, linking the professor to the psychiatrist, or whether I prefer the simplicity of the original story. (Thanks to Annalisa Calini for letting me know about the film.)

Warning, the following remark contains a spoiler: I have tagged this work with the "time travel" motif, but this applies only to Colin Levy's short film and not to the original short story by Igor Teper.

Contributed by Anonymous

Tried to rate it bleem, but something prevented me.

(Thanks, Anonymous, for giving me something to laugh about this afternoon. I needed that!)

Contributed by Bike

I have both read the short story and watched the short film. It is indeed a nice subject to think on. I especially liked the fact that the newly found thing was an easy case of an integer rather than a complicated theorem. Thus lets everyone to understand the movie/story easily. One thing confused me though. To be exact I am not a mathematician so I am probably wrong. What confused me was the last part when the guy ate one jelly bean from the pile of three jelly beans and there are again three left so we see that there must be another integer number which is between four and three so that even though we get one jelly bean from the pile it is still three. I felt like it is not a certain proof that bleem is between three and four but it is also possible to interpret it as bleem is between two and three because we get one jelly bean from three and it still looks like there are three jelly beans. I maybe crazy to think both possibilties are there but I would want to hear your thoughts on the matter. Also if it is possible to do it as taking one jelly bean'it must be possible to do it reversed as in: putting one jelly bean after another and between three and four there most be some abruption. Am I correct?

Hey, Bike. I would not think too hard about bleem. It is not likely to stand up to a rigorous investigation. But, loosely speaking, my interpretation of the jellybean thing at the end was this: For some reason, we cannot see or recognize bleem the way we can with other numbers. So, when it looked like there were three jelly beans, that was just our bleem-blindness and there were actually bleem of them. He took one away and now there really were three of them, which we also see as three jellybeans. Make sense, sort of?

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(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 The Secret Number
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. 2+2=5 by Rudy Rucker / Terry Bisson
  2. The Man Who Walked Through Mirrors by Robert Bloch
  3. Mathematical R & D by Paul J. Nahin
  4. Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson
  5. The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine by Greg Egan
  6. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
  7. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things by Lev Grossman
  8. Bellwether by Connie Willis
  9. Euler's Equation by Neil Hudson
  10. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
Ratings for The Secret Number:
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:
4.4/5 (5 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (6 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MotifMental Illness, Time Travel,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories, Films, Available Free Online,

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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)