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The Crazy Mathematician (1964)
Ralph Sylvester Underwood

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

Prof. Rumpel, a "genius touched by madness - a world sensation in the fields of mathematics, physics, astronomy - you name it", considers matter and spacetime to be infinitely divisible. Just like there is no smallest positive number ("What is the smallest positive number? There isn't any such thing, sir. Because if it existed, we could call it epsilon, say, and then epsilon divided by two would be smaller, so we have a contradiction."), the eminent professor considers the phrase, "the ultimate particle" to be "the most illogical and indefensible phrase used in what is sometimes called the 'Scientific World'. So of course, he goes and builds a machine which can zoom in and out of levels of reality and perception to explore the deep reaches below the atomic scale (Feynman would have been pleased). He takes a newbie reporter, Calvin Wilkins, on the journey. As the Prof. describes (with a hint of madness?):

(quoted from The Crazy Mathematician)

"Suppose we could make a diminishing machine. This would be incomparably more important than the 'time machine' of science fiction, because we have at least some faint idea of what would happen if we could go backward or forward in time. True, our imaginations can likewise sweep outward, in a feeble way, through the endless galaxies of space; but in the other, or inward, direction, they haven't made even a try. ·"Now let us suppose that we get inside the machine and then, when the fraction one over ten appears on a sensitive surface, we and the box shrink instantly to one tenth of our former dimensions. That means that the volumes would be reduced to one part in ten cubed. An alectric tape takes over, addling zero after zero to the denominator, and at each click we become one thousandth as large as before. In approximately ten clicks we become as small as the average atom, and in a few more we are in virgin territory, whose nature no one has even tried to guess. And after merely twenty-six clicks, as compared with normal man, we would be like that man standing before the universe of the radio telescope, assuming that universe to be some ten billion light years in diameter. All the time inside the box everything seems perfectly normal."

So off they go, first stop of the "squeeze run" is "Station One Million and sixty three", which is, I suppose, about 10^(-One Million and sixty three) meters scale. The professor carries "condensed air" to breathe, they gambol around in pre-quantum foam (for the Planck scale and Wheeler's quantum foam have long been left behind in the dust) which resembles some hole-filled topology with imagined colors. On their further journey to "Station Three Billion", they find "charming creatures who hands with six fingers and no thumbs, and so, use base 12 arithmetic on their signboards.

At "Station Three Billion", the reporter - wait for it - finds true love... As he describes,

(quoted from The Crazy Mathematician)

"Oh, what a beautiful world, this one! Trees and grass and wind, almost like on earth, but better. And there, walking past with a grace no woman on our planet could ever match, was a creature who was like an incredibly lovely human reared in another age, and utterly purged of all earthly flaws.", She speaks English, naturally, and to the credit of the reporter, he does wonder how this is possible. He guesses that "in the billions upon billions of chances, couldn't it just happen that you might run across near repetitions, even in the matter of language? Wildly improbable, of course, but...".

The truth is revealed in the end but we won't go into that here. You should read Calvin's love poem and final adventure in the story.

This story was published in the April 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction with "R. Underwood" listed as the author.

In fact the author was a math professor at Texas Technical College and the Alabama Polytechnic Institute and also a frequent contributor (under "R.S. Underwood") to the American Mathematical Monthly. It is not clear to me why he chose to call this story "The Crazy Mathematician". While everyone says that Rumpel is crazy, his seemingly bizarre ideas are apparently correct and so there's no particular reason to label him that way, even if he is a bit rude. I can speculate that perhaps Underwood chose this title as a subtle criticism of the stereotype. In any case, the editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction comment on the title in a revealing remark:

(quoted from The Crazy Mathematician)

We decided to leave the story's slightly old-fashioned title unchanged, partly because the subject matter is -- in its technical aspect -- one perhaps more favored iii the Old Days of SF than presently. .. We incline to think (and always have, from a boy) that all mathematicians are crazy; but, be that as it may ...

Consequently, I'm tagging this story with the motif "insanity".

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

On the mathematical scale, it is "Category 1 - Flimsy". Math is extremely tangential to the story.

(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 Crazy Mathematician
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Snow by Geoffrey A. Landis
  2. Those Who Can, Do by Bob Kurosaka
  3. Cantor's War by Christopher Anvil
  4. Three Cornered Wheel by Poul Anderson
  5. The Writing on the Wall by Steve Stanton
  6. Sword Game by H.H. Hollis
  7. FYI by James Blish
  8. Paint ‘Em Green by Burt Filer
  9. In Alien Flesh by Gregory Benford
  10. The Devil You Don't by Keith Laumer
Ratings for The Crazy Mathematician:
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:
2/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Mental Illness, Aliens, Romance,
TopicMathematical Physics,
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)