MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Say Wen (1930)
Ellis Parker Butler
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
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Contributed by Vijay Fafat

If you have a story’s tagline as...

(quoted from Say Wen)

“I assure you that I am not an unduly formal woman, but I consider it decidedly undignified for a dean of a co-educational college to hold a Professor of Higher Mathematics on her lap.”

...then one might be forgiven for expecting a rib-tickling episode to follow. Then again, if the story appears in a magazine called “College Humor”, such expectations must be naturally tempered...

President Tillen and Adella Dean are 2 aging faculty members of Dallings College who decide that it would somehow be a good idea to hire an 8-year old mathematical prodigy, Danis Barst, as the Chair of Higher Mathematics in the College. And who is Danis Barst?

(quoted from Say Wen)

"The infant prodigy, my dear Dean Dean," he said. "The mathematical-geometrical algebraic infant phenomenon. The eight-year-old boy who is one of the twelve human beings who understands the Einstein Theory. The child who, given a problem in differential calculus that would have taken our late poor dear Professor Wurtzburgzinn a week to solve, gives the solution in three seconds," said President Tillen.

[...]

“I have a letter here from Orson Plantagenet Wall," said President Tillen. "He says: 'With all his miraculous mathematical phenomenality, Danis Barst is unspoiled. In mathematics he is a million years old; in all else he is real boy. Foremost among the mathematicians of all ages by some strange gift, he is -- when not mathematizing -- not highbrow, not a puny weakling all run to brain, but a healthy, hearty American boy.”

Plus “the uncle of Danis Barst is Endrow Fullert, the corn cure billionaire. If I can wangle a million dollar endowment out of him...”... So of course, this boy becomes the lord of mathematics at the college but ends up creating fracas with his non-mathematical activities of innocence, leading to an unceremonious departure. Ms Adella, the narrator, concludes:

(quoted from Say Wen)

“I am willing to say now that I do not believe that children under ten are desirable as college professors. Eight is too young and, if I could have my way, only the steadier sort of prodigies under twelve would be given professorships.”

The concept had enormous potential and could have followed the footsteps of Willan & Searle’s “Molesworth” or Humphry Ellis’ “A.J. Wentworth”. But the author did not do so and the story did not turn out to be funny for the most part, though some of the dialogues have sparkle. Very little mathfiction.

This story was published in the October 1930 issue of “College Humor” and is currently available for free online from philsp.com.

More information about this work can be found at www.philsp.com.
(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 Say Wen
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Getting Rid of Fluff by Ellis Parker Butler
  2. The Chair of Philanthromathematics by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
  3. Porter Piper by Anonymous
  4. Erasmus with Freckles [aka Dear Brigitte] by John Haase
  5. The Smithsonian Institution by Gore Vidal
  6. The Geometrics of Johnny Day by Nelson Bond
  7. The Sinister Researches of C.P. Ransom by Homer C. Nearing Jr.
  8. Scandal in the Fourth Dimension by Amelia Reynolds Long (as "A.R. Long")
  9. A. Botts and the Moebius Strip by William Hazlett Upson
  10. Paul Bunyan versus the Conveyor Belt by William Hazlett Upson
Ratings for Say Wen:
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:
2/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHumorous,
MotifProdigies, Academia,
Topic
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)