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All the Universe in a Mason Jar (1977)
Joe Haldeman
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A humorous science fiction tale. John Taylor Taylor is a retired mathematician living in New Hampstead, Florida. One fine day, as he sits at his regular bar hangout reading his journals (“Nature, Communications of the American Society of Mathematics, and a collection of papers delivered at an ASM symposium on topology.”), an acquaintance, Isaac, tells him about an incident with a “flying saucer” the previous night, one which landed in the nearby woods and from which an alien escaped.

All very well as a drunken tale, till the professor, upon returning home, finds a bear-sized saurian alien in his living room. And:

(quoted from All the Universe in a Mason Jar)

“As he watched, the creature tore a page out of Fadeeva’s “Computational Methods of Linear Algebra”, stuffed it in his mouth and chewed. Spat it out.”

Before he can get scared, the rational, science-fiction-oriented mind of his concludes that the creature might be intelligent. To test this, as any mathematician would do (I suppose), he keeps down his gun. The following transpires:

(quoted from All the Universe in a Mason Jar)

“In several of the stories John had read, humans had communicated with alien races through the medium of mathematics, a pure and supposedly universal language. Fortunately, his library sported a blackboard. “Allow me to demonstrate,” he said with a slightly quavering voice as he crossed to the board, “the Theorem of Pythagorus.” The creature’s eyes followed him, blinking. “A logical starting place. Perhaps. As good as any,” he trailed off apologetically. He drew a right triangle on the board, and then drew squares out from the sides that embraced the right angle. He held the chalk out to the alien. The creature made a huffing sound, vaguely affirmative and wayed over to the blackboard. It retracted the claws on one hand and took the chalk from John. It bit off one end of the chalk experimentally, and spit it out. Then it reached over and casually sketched in the box representing the square of the hypotenuse. In the middle of the triangle it drew what was obviously an equals sign: ~. John was ecstatic. He took the chalk from the alien and repeated the curly line. He pointed at the alien and then a himself: equals. The alien nodded enthusiastically and took the chalk. It put a slanted line through John’s equals sign.

Not equals.

It stared at the blackboard, tapping it with the chalk; one universal gesture. Then, squeaking with every line, it rapidly wrote down {a squiggled diagram} John studied the message. Some sort of tree diagram? Perhaps a counting system. Or maybe not mathematical at all.”

Turns out the alien has written a symbolic formula for alcohol in its squiggles language. One thing leads to another and pretty soon, the professor has a kilogram of synthesized gold in exchange for moonshine. And the kicker? Humanity is invited to join the “Commonality”, a galactic club. And New Hampstead becomes an alien pilgrimage site for it makes the best gourmet moonshine in the entire Sirius Sector…

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Works Similar to All the Universe in a Mason Jar
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Dalrymple’s Equation by Paul Fairman
  2. Love and a Triangle by Stanley Waterloo
  3. Contact by Carl Sagan
  4. The Day the Earth Stood Still by Robert Wise (director) / Harry Bates (story) / Edmund H. North
  5. Art Thou Mathematics? by Charles Mobbs
  6. Quarantine by Arthur C. Clarke
  7. Nobody Loves a Moebius Strip by Alice Laurance
  8. The Unwilling Professor by Arthur Porges
  9. By a Fluke by Arthur Porges
  10. The Mathematicians by Arthur Feldman
Ratings for All the Universe in a Mason Jar:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
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)