a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
Published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December, 1936.
This story by pulp SF author Stanley G. Weinbaum was published posthumously. As Fred Galvin explains above (thanks Prof. Galvin for sending me this story!), it is not science fiction but rather a straight-forward thriller a la Steven King's "Misery". A math professor, thinking that he has been hired by a chemist to run some statistical analyses on experimental data, is surprised to learn that he is the experiment. The chemist, angry at mathematicians because a miscalculation by one resulted in him being crippled in an explosion, wishes to separate the real mathematicians from the bogus ones who -- in his opinion -- deserve to die. To test whether the protagonist is a real mathematician, he must guess the mathematical expression that the kidnapper is thinking of by asking ten questions.
Much of the math in the story is wrong. For instance:
Now, the most obvious problem with this quote is that `e' is not the symbol for the square root of negative one (at least not the standard one). Probably what was meant was `i', and the author merely got confused with the transcendental real number `e' (the base of the natural logarithm). Moreover, I am bothered by the whole gist of this discussion. I do not think any reasonable mathematician would claim that all numerical quantities are either real or imaginary. For one thing, most complex numbers (take a generic one of the form a+bi where a and b are real numbers) are neither real nor imaginary. In particular, they are only real or imaginary if a or b happen to be zero. (Technically, this becomes apparent if one takes his use of the word `field' to be literal. The real numbers are a field, but the imaginary numbers are not a field since they are not closed under multiplication: i*i=-1 which is not imaginary.) But, more importantly, it is naive to consider the real numbers and the complex numbers to be the only possible mathematical expressions. Why not also quaternions and infinite dimensional Lie groups and C^* algebras and.....
Another complaint I have about this story is its presentation of mathematics as a completely dry field of study. Consider the opening paragraph:
The "lifeless science of figures" indeed! All of the mathematicians I know are "dreamers", and none are the "driest and least lively of men". This is a stereotype I could easily disprove by inviting any believers to a math conference or seminar. Math is an active field of research, and those involved in it are as enthusiastic about it as those involved in biology research or physics research or psychology research. It is not just a few dreamers, but the vast majority of mathematics professors whose dreams keep pushing the field forward, little by little. And, the suggestion that Einstein was the first person to find application for abstract mathematics is absurd.
So, this story is insulting to mathematicians and not entirely mathematically accurate. Still, I cannot help but like the story. It is fun to read. It is well written. And, given the context, one cannot take it too seriously anyway. (Context? Well, I have a photocopy from Fred Galvin. It shows the cover listing other stories that appeared in the same issue: "Brain Stealers of Mars" and "Mutiny on Europa". The illustration for the story shows sea monsters brandishing mathematical expressions like weapons with the caption "Fantastic figures, in a myriad swarm, connive with the haunting specter of death".)
Author Andrew Breslin wrote in January 2017 to notify me that this story is now available on YouTube in the form of a radio show. Personally, I think I would rather read it than hear it. But, if you want to listen to it as you drive to work, then letting the announcer read you the story aloud as part of the "Mind Web" dramatization series might be a good alternative.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)