a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Mathematics Disputes with Death, and the Devil Intervenes (2021)
Thomas Reed Willemain
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

The title is an accurate description of this droll allegory featuring personifications of mathematics and death as well as the devil and "the Ancient One".

The dead human over whom math and death argue is quite conceited, and it is said that his mathematical ability ceased promptly at age 40. Two of his female students have also died, of them it is said that had they lived they "were twice as likely to have had their creativity squashed as nurtured".

Of course, some mathematicians are conceited and every ability eventually declines with age. Furthermore, doing a better job of supporting and encouraging our students -- particularly female students -- is something the mathematical community should be working towards. But, I fear that exaggerating these problems and repeating these stereotypes -- as is done here apparently for humorous purposes -- will only further discourage young people from entering the field. To top it all off, the story ends with a joke implying that the world would be better off without theorems.

The official citation for the story is The Mathematical Intelligencer volume 43, pages 80–81 (2021)

Contributed by Allan Goldberg

I read the story “Mathematics Disputes…” and agree that the using female mathematicians in a pejorative sense in order to help formulate a McGuffin, was in bad taste and completely unnecessary.

In fact, having any people die could have been avoided by having Death enter the story by any number of “non-lethal” means.

However, IMHO, the point of the story was that the AO (Supreme Being) was allowing all the other personifications (Mathematics, Death, and the Devil) to engage in pointless banter, as he ruled the universe using randomness in a way that was beyond the understanding of all lesser beings, including these personifications, and made the study of mathematics or any human attribute, irrelevant.

The story is similar in some ways to “Applied Scientific Demiurgy”.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to Mathematics Disputes with Death, and the Devil Intervenes
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Math Takes a Holiday by Paul Di Filippo
  2. Been a long, long time by R.A. Lafferty
  3. Matrices by Steven Nightingale
  4. Incomplete Proofs by John Chu
  5. Journey to the Center of Mathematics by Colin Adams
  6. I of Newton by Joe Haldeman
  7. The Devil a Mathematician Would Be by A.J. Lohwater
  8. Naturally by Fredric Brown
  9. The Devil You Don't by Keith Laumer
  10. The Root and the Ring by Wyman Guin
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GenreHumorous, Fantasy,
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)