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Cryptology (2003)
Leonard Michaels
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

You know how The New Yorker likes to publish vaguely bizarre short stories that happen to take place in New York City? You know how lots of authors who want to show a character who is afraid of "real life" use the stereotype of the mathematician who hides from the world behind mathematics? Then you won't be too surprised by this vaguely bizarre short story from The New Yorker (May 26, 2003 issue).

Nachman is a mathematician visiting the Big Apple for a job interview. Although the potential employers have paid for his flight and stay in a fancy hotel, they remain anonymous and then fail to show up. So, even though he isn't a cryptologist, he attends a cryptology conference and wanders around town. In his wanderings, he meets a woman who clearly knows him well. In response to the woman's claim that he is a genius he says "I'm a good mathematician...good is rare enough, believe me." He agrees to meet her and her husband even though Nachman cannot recall who this woman is. In her apartment, while his hosts are still in the shower, he becomes embarrassingly weird and runs away. He wonders whether he should get a life, perhaps fly to Mongolia to herd yaks and get married. (No, I'm not making that's an example that Nachman considers in the story.)

However, it concludes "How absurd. He wasn't adventurous. As for `a life', it was what you read about in newspaper obituaries. He didn't need one. He would return to California and think only about mathematics."

Once again, we are presented with the tired (IMHO) stereotype of the mathematician who choses mathematics over "life". (Well, I guess in many of the stories I'm considering, the happy ending is that they finally choose life over mathematics, as in Good Will Hunting or Pi.) For anyone reading this who may not know, let me state authoritively that mathematics and life are actually compatible. The vast majority of mathematicians do lead normal lives. And, although there probably are a few mathematicians who "hide" in their mathematics, I have no reason to think that they are any more prevalent than people who hide in other careers or hobbies. So, if you're planning to write a story about someone who is afraid of "real life" and hides from it in their work or their hobby, do me a favor and make the character into a plumber or a perfume designer or something else other than a mathematician.

Contributed by Anthony Tellier

"Having Nachmann as a mathematician seems totally out of place ... and not related to the story; he could have in any trade or career. IF a "mathematician" relies more on logic than, say, a house painter, then why were his responses to Helen so bizarre. What a let-down ... I actualy expected Helen and her husband to be the pople that brought him to NYC."

Contributed by Dan

It was a fine story. A mathematician hiding from life is certainly a tired stereotype. But the story was intriguing and unsettling in just the right way. I liked it so much that I looked up Leonard Michaels on the internet and got to you. So relax and enjoy the story, even if it is mathematically flawed.

Contributed by Anonymous

I just read two Nachman stories from the New Yorker magazine and I enjoyed reading both of them. I would actually go so far as to argue that the stories are comparable to fine math texts. The stories are full of undramatic surprises, leading from one to another in a subtle way, which is something one encounters through a tightly knitted mathematics text. You know something is coming, but before you step on to that, you don't know what exactly it is. I agree that the stories are a bit bizzare, but, come on, the truely elegant math ideas are no less otherworldly---remember your first encounter with, say, the concept of adjoints?

And I find it funny that people would make such a big deal about the mathematician stereotype. First of all, mathematics is mostly used as a symbol. And, second of all, I do believe that a truely devoted mathematician would have an uncommon view of the world. True, too many books have romanticized the image of some mathematicians to an extreme, but there is some real-life basis. Every person relates to his or her subject matter differently. And, if all mathematicians lead a "normal life", the field of mathematics would probably not have been so exciting.

In response to the last contributor, let me say that I hope that it does not seem that I am too upset by the stereotype of mathematicians in fiction. I don't mean to "make such a big deal" about it. I'm merely commenting on it. There are two reasons I'm commenting on it, in fact. For one, it is the very purpose of this site to help people find works of fiction that concern mathematics and one factor (although certainly not the only factor) that may be of interest is how the mathematician in the story is presented. The other thing you have to remember is that I read a lot of fiction about mathematicians. So, although you may see a mathematician stereotype now and then, I see them all the time. They just become so tiresome, and seem to suggest a lack of imagination on the part of the author. As you say, if all mathematicians had led normal lives, mathematics would be boring...but if all of the mathematician characters in fiction were cut from the same 2-dimensional mold, mathematical fiction would be as well.

Contributed by Philip Kreiner

Who cares about the math? [Editor's Note: I do. Do you mind?] It's a philosophical issue which Michaels is woking on and the story is just mysterious, compelling and wonderfully well written. I ask for nothing more. Too bad Michaels died last December. I miss him already. And we had only just the NewYorker.

I'm very sorry to learn from Philip Kreiner's post that the author has passed away. All of the Nachman stories appear at the end of his posthumously published Collected Stories. Despite my concerns about the stereotype of mathematicians being anti-social and mentally unstable, I can see that his stories are well written. If you have read and enjoyed Cryptology, I encourage you to read the others, especially The Penultimate Conjecture.

In addition, Arion Press published The Nachman Stories in a separate and very expensive book.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to Cryptology
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Nachman Burning by Leonard Michaels
  2. Nachman at the Races by Leonard Michaels
  3. Nachman from Los Angeles by Leonard Michaels
  4. Nachman by Leonard Michaels
  5. My Heart Belongs to Bertie by Helen DeWitt
  6. Zero by Buzz Mauro
  7. The Penultimate Conjecture by Leonard Michaels
  8. Of Mystery There Is No End by Leonard Michaels
  9. The Arnold Proof by Jessica Francis Kane
  10. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
Ratings for Cryptology:
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:
1.17/5 (6 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.83/5 (6 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Mental Illness,
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)