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La formule: (A story of fourth dimension) (1996)
Jean Ray

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A very short story from the ultramundane realm, relying on the theme that certain types of mathematical knowledge open up portals to higher dimensions.

A mathematical physicist, Lenglade, lives up high in an attic of a house (the housekeeper complains, “you perch as high as the rooster of the steeple [...] in the crow’s nest; one hundred and twenty steps well counted, of which forty in the dark!”). On a fine morning, on his blackboard, he finds Einstein’s formula E=mc2 written in a corner, and next to it, a strange, haunting extension of the formula. The formula makes no sense and yet, he is filled with a sense of fascination and admiration. The formula

(quoted from La formule: (A story of fourth dimension))

“had been written with a firm hand, the lying eight, symbol of infinity, was drawn regular and elegant, as he himself could not have done; the letters seemed to come out of a notebook calligraphy.”

He asks the housekeeper if anyone had visited his room but she denies, saying no one would come so far up in the house just to scribble something on the blackboard. Lenglade contemplates over the strange symbols:

(quoted from La formule: (A story of fourth dimension))

“The formula was written next to Einstein's equation, as if to complete it or simply to qualify it as incomplete. Lenglade's opinion, as far as he could have had one on the matter, tilted towards the last hypothesis. Energy, mass, speed… all fine… but Time? Le Temps, our great master, as Nordmann calls it, had not found a place in the prodigious equation, and Lenglade thought of the fairy from the old tale [of] the Sleeping Beauty. But the formula as presented was only part of an equation, the sign equivalence was missing. Mechanically Lenglade traced it ...”

Clearly, the formula is missing significant elements.

When the professor returns to his room in the evening, the blackboard has more additions:

(quoted from La formule: (A story of fourth dimension))

“His mouth agape, the professor stared at the enormous series of formulas and equations which covered the chalkboard, and one of them was now burning, final, in the fires of the setting sun.

- My God… stammered the scholar, I should have foreseen it… Einstein braked on the divine road, he did not want to steal the Great Wisdom, the intelligence of the Universe… God. While I…wretched…

He turned his back to the board and looked up at the darkened sky.

- Lord! I await your sentence!

And Lenglade abruptly vanished, was no more, as if he had never existed.


It seems by implication that the professor had completed his own equation as a split personality, and the equation became a magic talisman. The housekeeper who reads the equation the next morning disappears as well, implying that comprehension is not important, just reading the formula does the trick, strongly reminiscent of Cherniak’s story, “The Riddle of the Universe and its Solution”.

Although the author died in 1964, this story appears to have been first published (in French) in the anthology Les histoires étranges de la Biloque in 1996.

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Works Similar to La formule: (A story of fourth dimension)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Planck Dive by Greg Egan
  2. Snow by Geoffrey A. Landis
  3. Oracle by Greg Egan
  4. Nuremberg Joys by Charles Sheffield
  5. Boltzmann's Ghost by Ken Wharton
  6. Border Guards by Greg Egan
  7. Ouroboros by Geoffrey A. Landis
  8. Approaching Perimelasma by Geoffrey A. Landis
  9. A Game of Consequences by David Langford
  10. Lines of Longitude by Stephen Baxter
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GenreScience Fiction,
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)