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Calculating the Speed of Heartbreak (2023)
Wendy Nikel

Normally, I don't like works of mathematical fiction that use mathematical terminology and notation to discuss romantic relationships. They often involve groan-inducing formulae like "Pat + Sandy = Love". However, this short story which utilizes the format of mathematical proofs to tell a love story (with a science fiction twist) does it especially well.

Written as a sequence of theorems (each numbered, stated, and then "proved"), it tells the story of someone in a long distance relationship with an astronaut.

(quoted from Calculating the Speed of Heartbreak)

Theorem 1.1: The long-distance theorem

If the formula for speed is s = d/t — speed equals distance travelled divided by time elapsed — and the speed of heartbreak is constant, then it follows that long-distance relationships produce the longest (yet still inevitable) heartbreaks.

Proof. Suppose you’re the sorry, lovesick sap who tells Flynn Goodwin (yes, now- Commander Flynn Goodwin) that you’ll wait for him, knowing that his work on the lunar base Selene will keep the two of you hundreds of thousands of miles apart for an interval of four years. Suppose you wait by the phone and video feed all that time, tracing the Moon’s orbit each night, so that by the time you realize that something about the relationship is not adding up, the days have dragged out like a bell curve’s tail.

You can do the maths. If you’ve ever thought there might be something meaningful between you two, his choice to remain there even longer — indefinitely, he says in his apologetic, static-crackled message — is proof of impossibility enough.

Since the story is so short (and so good), I would urge you to obtain a copy and read it yourself before I get to any "spoilers" below.

It was published in the "Futures" column of Nature in February 2023 (doi: I am very grateful to Allan Goldberg for noticing this short story and bringing it to my attention.

SPOILER ALERT: Below I will discuss the ending and so you are encouraged to read the original before continuing if you can.

SPOILER ALERT: Below I will discuss the ending and so you are encouraged to read the original before continuing if you can.

SPOILER ALERT: Below I will discuss the ending and so you are encouraged to read the original before continuing if you can.
The story goes on with "Theorem 1.2: The rebound theorem" about a seemingly successful date that unfortunately ends in a contradiction through the line "I just don't think of you like that." As expected, "Theorem 1.3: The central limit theorem" involves the emergence of normal distributions, but also dating apps and questions about "that nice astronaut boy" from a parent.

The formula s=d/t comes up in each of the theorems all the way through "Theorem 1.5: The end-of-the-world theorem". Here it is revealed that the astronaut was attempting to save the planet Earth from an imminent disaster, and that the attempt was unsuccessful. Consequently, the value of t approaches zero, representing the infinitesimally small amount of time they have left to live. Under these circumstances, the formula takes on a whole new meaning, as does their relationship.

To me, this was a very clever way to use mathematics in a work of fiction. There are a few other works that I find similar to this one in some ways, especially Division by Zero and Problems for Self-Study, but this ending still seems quite unique to me.

More information about this work can be found at
(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 Calculating the Speed of Heartbreak
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Ultimate Crime by Isaac Asimov
  2. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
  3. Buried Alive at the End of the World by Blair Bourrassa
  4. Division by Zero by Ted Chiang
  5. Continuity by Buzz Mauro
  6. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things by Lev Grossman
  7. Risqueman by Mike Wood
  8. Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte
  9. Axiom of Dreams by Arula Ratnakar
  10. Gödel Incomplete by Martha Goddard (Writer and Director)
Ratings for Calculating the Speed of Heartbreak:
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:
5/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction, Romance,
MotifProving Theorems, Future Prediction through Math, Romance,
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)