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The Trachtenberg Speed System (2014)
Buzz Mauro
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Realizing that he is likely to die there, Jakow Trachtenberg fantasizes that the method of mental computation that he has created while at a Nazi concentration camp will live on beyond him. A young guard at the camp forces Trachtenberg to teach him the method hoping in vain that it will help him to advance his own career. Some of the computational algorithms and a simple problem involving an object falling under the influence of gravity are explicitly discussed. However, it is the horrific circumstances of the prisoners at the camp and the uncontrollable anger of the young guard and not the math that are really the point of this excellent short story.

Two topics addressed in the story that may be of interest to visitors to this site include the difficulties that Jakow has in teaching the young Nazi (not entirely unlike difficulties math teachers encounter anywhere) and the fact that Jakow himself appreciates the method in part for its own abstract beauty rather than for its utility:

(quoted from The Trachtenberg Speed System)

But still he visited Jakow night after night, with ever growing urgency, as though convinced that fluency in mental calculation would make of him an engineer, and as though becoming an engineer would advance him through the ranks. He routinely subtracted a digit from nine when he should be doubling it. Or tried to carry a one, although the very idea was meaningless in the new System. Jakow tried to think of real-life calculations that might make the System more concrete and learnable, but his word problems always felt contrived--purchases of military supplies, hours of sentry duty in a year--and could have no real application in Stefan's life. It was partly that Jakow had little knowledge of Stefan's life, but partly, too, that although Jakow understood the potential utility of his System, the joy he took in it had nothing to do with its practicality. For Jakow it was pure thought, abstract and aesthetic, the one realm where perfection was not only possible but required. He loved only the way its pieces snapped together in his brain. How they interlocked with the world was less clear to him.

It was published in Confrontation, Issue Number 115, Spring 2014.

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Works Similar to The Trachtenberg Speed System
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  3. The First Circle by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
  4. Ultima lezione a Gottinga [Last lecture at Göttingen] by Davide Osenda
  5. The Body Outside the Kremlin by James L. May
  6. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  7. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee (author) / Chi-Young Kim (translator)
  8. Fractions by Buzz Mauro
  9. One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin (Author) / Christiana Hills (Translator)
  10. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Ratings for The Trachtenberg Speed System:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifReal Mathematicians, Math Education,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories,

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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)