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The Gangs of New Math (2005)
Robert W. Vallin

This humorous short story about a brawl in a pub of mathematicians appeared in the November 2005 issue of Math Horizons magazine. There is quite a bit of "mathematical name-dropping" in the form of quick one-liners (e.g. "Below a sign that reads 'Mobius Strip" lies something all scratched up on one side. A jug that will never again hold anything inside it is by a placard that reads 'Klein Bottle'.") But, the main mathematical content of the story concerns the conflict between what characterizes a "small" subset of the reals. On the one hand, there are those who argue that any countable subset is small and on the other are those who think that it must have "measure zero". Both may sound sensible at first, but both also produce a supposedly "small" set that doesn't seem quite so small. Sure, it makes sense to say that the integers form a "small" subset of the reals because they are countable...but so are the rationals. And how can the rationals be considered a small subset when they are dense? Similarly, the integers have measure zero and so would appear to be small by the other definition as well...but the Cantor set is an example of a measure zero set that is uncountable. How can it be considered small when it is in one-one correspondence with the real numbers?

It is interesting to see these ideas in the form of a story. Unfortunately, they are not presented in a way that will inform those who are not already familiar with the concepts. Those with the necessary background in topology and analysis will find the story entertaining, but for everyone else this is a long-winded joke whose punchline must be explained.

Contributed by Bob Vallin

In defense of my story, Gangs of New Math, the mathematics of measure, denseness, and what defines a small set (there are four conditions to be met) were all in the original version. It was sliced by the editors to fit the space.

BTW In case anyone doesn't "get" the title, check out both The Gangs of New York and the new math.

(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 The Gangs of New Math
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. I Had to Call In a Mathematician by Erik Talvila
  2. Uncle Georg's Attic by Ben Schumacher
  3. Harvey Plotter and the Circle of Irrationality by Nathan Carter / Dan Kalman
  4. Pythagoras's Darkest Hour by Colin Adams
  5. The Case of the Murdered Mathematician by Julia Barnes / Kathy Ivey
  6. Cardano and the Case of the Cubic by Jeff Adams
  7. The Adventures of Topology Man by Alex Kasman
  8. The Geometrics of Johnny Day by Nelson Bond
  9. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
  10. Paul Bunyan versus the Conveyor Belt by William Hazlett Upson
Ratings for The Gangs of New Math:
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 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
2.33/5 (3 votes)

MotifMobius Strip/Nonorientability,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Analysis/Calculus/Differential,
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)