a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Newton's Gift (1979)
Paul J. Nahin
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Time traveller Wallace John Steinhope believes that he will be able to help his hero, Isaac Newton, avoid the tedium of computation by bringing him an electronic calculator that can do simple arithmetic. Unfortunately, Newton concludes (perhaps reasonably, given what he knows and what he is shown) that the calculator is a tool of Satan and so is not the grateful recipient that Wallace had expected. (Perhaps the point is this: the story serves as a kind of "myth" to explain why Newton, revered today for his brilliant scientific mind, turned to religion and superstition when he became older.)

It is interesting "meeting" Newton in this story. Both the contagious excitement of the time traveller in meeting him and his old English dialect add to the feeling I had (as the reader) that I was actually meeting Newton myself. However, IMHO, the whole idea that Newton was in need of a calculator is a rather confused notion. In developing the theory of calculus and determining the force of gravity exerted by any mass on any other mass, I do not think Isaac Newton spent much time on particular computations with specific values.

This story was published in Omni (January 1979) and then republished in The Best of Omni Science Fiction Number 3. Most recently, it was included in a book of (mostly non-fictional) essays by Nahin, Number Crunching. (This story is apparently not at all related to the non-fiction book of the same title.)

Contributed by Eric Ostendorff

Great story, Alex. I had heard of this story long ago, but I never found the magazine. You helped my wife track down a copy of the story and she gave it me so "Newton's Gift" became "Eric's Gift" for my birthday. The story is shorter than I had imagined, but it packs a concentrated punch. Nahin glosses over the hows and whys of the time machine. Seems like an easily accessible time machine would be quite dangerous for most people and what they might do. A very entertaining read, and I think your comments are spot on. I want to track down more of Nahin's time travel stories. Thanks for your help! Eric

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Ratings for Newton's Gift:
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:
4/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Science Fiction,
MotifReal Mathematicians, Time Travel, Isaac Newton,
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)