a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Gnome and the Pearl of Wisdom: A Fable (1977)
Richard Willmott
Highly Rated!

A greedy gnome with a countably infinite collection of marbles wants to trade it with Merlin the mathematician for his beautiful "pearl of wisdom". Merlin takes advantage of the gnomes unfamiliarity with the bizarre properties of infinite sets to trick him instead.

The story is very cleverly constructed. We go step by step along with the gnome. We learn about convergent infinite series (how long it takes him to number his marbles if he does each in half the time it took him to do the previous one.) We similarly believe that he can put them all in numbered boxes in the same way. However, just a tiny twist on this last feat turns out paradoxically to lead to an unexpected, and unbelievable, outcome. What this demonstrates, I suppose, is that the physical universe cannot both include an infinite number of things and allow one of those objects to do an infinite number of things to them in a finite amount of time. If those were both the case, then a paradox could be physically achieved. It does not appear that there are an infinite number of particles in the universe, but even if there were (and perhaps there are, despite our current cosmological models) this would not be a problem since the limitation on the speed of travel (e.g. speed of light) would prevent something from acting on two objects at a sufficiently great distance apart in a short amount of time.

(Published in Math Magazine, vol 50, no 3 (May 1977) pp. 141-143.

(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 Gnome and the Pearl of Wisdom: A Fable
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Monkey in Hilbert's Hotel by K. B. Basant
  2. The Extraordinary Hotel or the Thousand and First Journey of Ion the Quiet by Naum Ya. Vilenkin
  3. Cantor’s Dragon by Craig DeLancy
  4. Rumpled Stiltskin by Colin Adams
  5. Let's Consider Two Spherical Chickens by Tommaso Bolognesi
  6. Hilbert's Hotel by Ian Stewart
  7. E-Z Calculus [Calculus by Discovery] by Douglas Downing
  8. Flatterland: like Flatland, only more so by Ian Stewart
  9. The Raven and the Writing Desk by Ian T. Durham
  10. The Rose Acacia by Ralph P. Boas, Jr.
Ratings for The Gnome and the Pearl of Wisdom: A Fable:
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:
4.67/5 (6 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (6 votes)

GenreFantasy, Didactic,
MediumShort Stories,

Home All New Browse Search About

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)