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When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte] (1907)
Kurd Lasswitz
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A light-hearted tale about a mathematics professor who is accosted by the Devil (who looks like the Professor because, as the Devil says, “Everybody is his own devil”). He has come to possess the professor’s soul (because he can, no excuse needed). But before that, he offers the professor courtesy of a ten-thousand-light-years-long ride amongst the stars, a dream nurtured by the professor. In a heaven-or-hell predicament, the professor starts thinking of ways to outwit the Devil and return home. He has some hope, for as he recounts to his colleagues:

(quoted from When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte])

“I decided that I would not let the devil impress me in any way. I felt certain that he had weak points and I have always maintained that Dr. Faustus, if only he had been a better mathematician, could have won his particular case without trouble.”

The two end up having philosophical conversation about the visual sights they see as they travel faster than light, the nature of God (“Reason”), the abilities of “Infinite Spirits” to routinely indulge in what living things in the universe would consider magic, the reasons why the Devil feels inferior to God, and so on. The Devil’s main regret is that he is unable to destroy anything in the universe because Reason / God can always restore anything back to its original condition, though he does believe that if the universe were spatially closed, he could have his way by throwing matter “outside” of the closed box. The professor does not quite believe this but concludes that perhaps, if he showed that the universe really was a finite, closed topology, he would be released. And what better way than to just travel in a straight line very fast and return to the starting point, with the added benefit that the journey would end back on earth in time for the professor to finish some incomplete research! So he goads the Devil to travel at 20 million times the speed of light in a straight line.

(quoted from When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte])

“But why did you ask for this high speed, Herr Professor?” said Mrs. Broesen. “I’ve been wondering about that. If I understood you correctly you were to travel, oh some awful distance and the real punishment was to come after that. If I had bee'll you I would have asked for the lowest speed the devil would permit.”

“But I wanted to get home quickly because of my unfinished work. To do that I had to fly as fast as possible, in a straight line.”

“I still don’t understand,” Mrs. Broesen insisted. “Couldn’t you explain this a little more clearly?”

“Suppose that you traveled due West from here in a straight line. Since the earth is a sphere you would, in the end, return to this city, coming from the East.”

“I know that much myself. But the galaxy is not a sphere and you did not travel at its surface.”

“No, but space itself is curved ; we just don’t notice it. Formerly people also thought that the earth was flat. Now we all know better. As for space, some mathematicians have suspected for quite some time that it might be curved. They could not prove it, they could just say that it might be so without changing the laws of logical thought. Well, I succeeded in discovering that space is curved. The devil did not know that because my paper hasn’t been published yet. I also calculated the radius of curvature; in short our space is not a Euclidean space but what I call an elliptical space, and its radius of curvature is 3000 light years, so that light needs somewhat over 10,000 years to return to the point of origin.”

The Devil is befuddled when they arrive back near Neptune at the end of the travel. So the professor explains:

(quoted from When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte])

“You simply made a mistake in assuming that space is infinite. Our mathematicians have known for a long time that an infinity of types of space is possible. They just could not prove which of the possible types applied to our own space. But now we have traveled 10^17 kilometers in a straight line and we are back about where we started. This should convince you that our space is finite. I have known that for a long time.”

The Devil feels that this also proves some sort of ignorance on God’s part and as a reward, releases the professor.

The story has to be treated as a “tall-tale” even more so than other deal-with-the-devil yarns because unlike other stories (notably Arthur Porges’ “The Devil and Simon Flagg”), Lasswitz’s story has a feel of being very flimsy but funny, with a cartoonish Devil who seems to have the power to manipulate transfinite energies but the temperament of a child, and the ability to “manipulate infinite vectors” but a serious lack of deductive sense. The story was also published in 1907, just two years after Einstein’s Special Theory so the author may not have been aware of its implications. In any case, a vintage story needs extra accommodation on such issues.

Lasswitz's stories can be read for entertainment, but he was a philosophy professor and considered his stories to be speculative fiction exploring real scientific questions. This story appeared in his anthology “Traumkristalle” and an English translation by Willey Ley appeared much later in the January 1953 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (See also The Universal Library.)

The review above comments on the story's use of faster-than-light travel, seemingly in contradiction to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. However, to me a more interesting point is its connection to General Relativity. The idea that space itself might be curved was not entirely new in 1907. Riemann himself had written about the possibility. But, while a story about the curvature of space might seem old-hat after General Relativity became widely appreciated and verified by experiment, it seems quite prescient to me for a work as old as this one. Another great find from Vijay Fafat for this database. Thank you, Vijay!

(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 When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte]
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Universal Library [Die Universalbibliothek] by Kurd Lasswitz
  2. Prost, der Faust-Tragödie (-n)ter Teil [Prost: the (-n)th Part of the Faust Tragedy] by Kurd Lasswitz
  3. Naturally by Fredric Brown
  4. The Devil and Simon Flagg by Arthur Porges
  5. I of Newton by Joe Haldeman
  6. Plane and Fancy by P. Schuyler Miller
  7. Perelman's Song by Tina Chang
  8. The Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang
  9. Dante Dreams by Stephen Baxter
  10. The Devil You Don't by Keith Laumer
Ratings for When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte]:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction, Fantasy,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Mathematical 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)