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The Genius (1901)
Nikolai Georgievich Garin-Mikhailovskii

The Russian Engineer N.G. Mikhailovskii (1852-1906) was also an accomplished author using the pseudonym "N.G. Garin". His short story, "The Genius", tells about an Jewish man who fills his notebooks with his brilliant mathematical discoveries...written only in Hebrew. Only when he is able to communicate with a Russian math teacher through translators does he learn that he has merely rediscovered the differential calculus which was already developed centuries earlier by other mathematicians.

The story says a little bit about mathematics and the feelings it can evoke in people (the teacher as well as the Jewish mathematician), but more significantly it raises questions about the nature of "genius" and the tremendous value of priority of discovery. (Clearly, being the first to discover something -- or to fill in the last step in a discovery process that involved many people over a long time -- is highly prized in math and science. But, even in the arts this seems to be the case, though there it is a matter of "creativity" versus being too "derivative".)

The story has already been posted in Russian at this location. The anonymous mathematical fiction expert who brought it to my attention also made use of his Russian language skills to come up with the following translation for us:

The Genius (1901)

by Nikolai Georgievich Garin-Mikhailovskii


Everyone in the city knew the huge old Hebrew. His hair was long and disheveled like the mane of a lion. His beard was yellow with age, like ivory.

He walked about in a gaberdine, his shoes worn down at the heels. Perhaps the only way he differed from other Hebrews was that his huge wide-open eyes did not look down (as they say all Hebrews do) but somewhere up.

The years passed, generations succeeded generations, borne by the racket of the carriage, travellers hurried past anxious queues, boys ran along, laughing. But the old Hebrew, solemn and unconcerned, passed everyone too along the street, with his gaze fixed up. Truly, he was seeing that which no one else could.


The only person in the city whom the old Hebrew favored with attention was a mathematics teacher from one of the high schools. Every time he noticed the teacher, he stopped and looked attentively, long after he spotted him. Perhaps the mathematics teacher realized the old Hebrew was a genuine mathematician, but perhaps not. The teacher was small and dissipated with the appearance of a monkey, who knew nothing to see and to want except mathematics. But the teacher so frequently misplaced the sponge-eraser--in his pocket instead of his handkerchief--and he so often showed up to the lessons without his frock coat, that the mockery of the students became too much, and the teacher was finally forced to leave high school teaching.

Afterwards, he completely returned to his studies and only left his residence to eat at the cookhouse. He lived in his own place, reserved for him in his father's big house, filled top to bottom with tenants. But most of them paid nothing, because they were poor and indigent.

The house was dirty and multistoried. Dirtier than anything in the house was the teacher's two room basement apartment. It was entirely covered with books, and with papers covered with writing, and with a thick layer of dust covering everything, so much so that if the dust were to be all kicked up at once, it would be possible to choke.

But this thought never entered into his head, nor that of an old tomcat, the other inhabitant of the apartment. The teacher would sit motionlessly at his table and write calculations. The cat would sleep without stirring, rolled up in a tangle on the iron-latticed window sill.

The cat only woke up for meals, when the time approached to meet the teacher at the cookhouse. Old and shabby, it would meet him two streets down. By long experience, the cat knew a half-portion of the thirty kopeck meal was intended for it, wrapped in paper and revealed to it when it returned home. Looking forward to its enjoyment, the cat strode along the streets in front of its owner, its tail raised, its back arched, all wispy in patchy fur.


One day the door to the teacher's apartment was opened and the old Hebrew walked in.

Without hurry, he took from his waistcoat a thick dirty notebook, filled with his mathematics, all written in Hebrew.

The mathematician took the notebook, turning it occasionally in his hands, and asked several questions. Although the old Hebrew knew Russian very badly and understood very little, the mathematician was able to understand that the text of the notebook was something mathematical. He was interested in finding a translator to study the sense of the manuscript. The result of this study would be unusual. After a month, the Hebrew was invited to the department of the mathematics faculty at the local university.

In the session hall, the mathematicians of all the university and all the city convened. The old Hebrew, unconcerned as ever with his upward gaze, gave answers through a translator.

"There is no doubt," said the chairman to the Hebrew," that you indeed discovered the greatest advance in all the world: you discovered the differential calculus.... But unfortunately for you, Newton already discovered it two centuries ago. Nevertheless, your method is completely independent, distinct from Newton and Leibniz."

This was translated. The Hebrew asked in a hoarse voice:

"Is his work written in Hebrew?"

"No, only in Latin," they answered him.


The old Hebrew arrived after several days to the mathematician and with difficulty explained that he wished to learn mathematics and Latin. Amongst the many tenants of the teacher were found a student of languages and a student of mathematics, who agreed to teach the Hebrew at the apartment: one for Latin and one for the basics of higher mathematics.

Every day, the old Hebrew came with textbooks, took lessons, and left his sessions for home. There, in a dirty part of the city, he climbed up a dark, smelly staircase amidtst the many mangy children to his garret, endowed to him by the Hebrew Association. In the damp, fungus-ridden hovel, he squatted by the only window, studying the assignment.

Now during leisure hours, to the greater amusement of little boys, he often strode side-by-side with the other oddball of the city, the little monkey-faced teacher. Silently they walked and silently they parted. Their only farewell was pressing their hands to each other.

Three years passed. The old Hebrew could already read Newton in the original. He read it once, twice, three times. There was no doubt. Indeed, the old Hebrew had discovered the differential calculus. And indeed, it had already been discovered two centuries previously by the greatest genius of the earth. He closed his book. Everything was complete. Everything was proven.

He looked at the sky with a stiff glance and he saw what no else saw: the greatest genius on earth, who could gift the world with a great new discovery, was only suitable as a butt for children's humor.

One day they found the corpse of the old Hebrew in his hovel. He was found lying in a stiff pose, bent over on his hands and elbows. His thick locks were the color of yellowed ivory. A hair was scattered across his face and arm. His eyes were looking at the opened book, as if, after death, they were still reading it.

[Author's note: This tale is based on a true story, told to the author by M Yu Goldstein. The Hebrew was from the Pasternak family. The author himself remembers this person. There is an authentic Hebrew manuscript belonging to somebody in Odessa.]

Contributed by Translator

Nikolai Georgievich Garin-Mikhailovskii (1852-1906), born N G Mikhailovskii, was a prominent Russian engineer, much of his work involving railroads. His best known engineering work was the building of an important stop for what would eventually be the Trans-Siberian Railroad, in what would eventually be the city of Novosibirsk ("New Siberia"). Garin-Mikhailovskii is in fact considered the founder of Novosibirsk. The square in front of the city's great railroad station is named after him.

He also took up writing under the pseudonym N G Garin. He was at the time held in the same esteem as his friends Chekhov and Gorky. His best known fiction was a thinly disguised autobiographical novel sequence about the childhood, education, and early career of an engineer.

Garin-Mikhailovskii was also an early supporter of the Bolsheviks. That and his engineering work and themes meant that the Soviets had high regard for him. Although a writer often becomes known by just his pseudonym, the engineering angle was considered just as important, and he has become known posthumously by the hyphenated name.

His work has been translated into several languages, but not, apparently any of it into English. Although my Russian is weak (after two years of college Russian, I could read math papers in Russian and took no more, and have never had the opportunity to travel) this story is of mathematical interest, so I made the extra effort. I believe it's rather accurate, with my main difficulty ignorance about what passes for simple idiom and what was literary effect.

For example, the cat arches its "spine" in the Russian. Is that idiomatic, so the English should refer to it arching its back, or is it an effect that Garin-Mikhailovskii was trying for, hinting to us that the cat is a little more bare-boned that usual? I don't know. I believe I corrected what was a misprint ("damp", not "soupy"), but I could be wrong. Russian uses relative clauses a lot more than English, so I frequently chopped up sentences, but I don't think I did so in a consistent manner. The most delicate decision I faced was whether to translate "yevrei" as "Hebrew" or "Jew". About the time the story was written, "Hebrew" was the usual word for the person, and "Jew" was slightly derogatory. Nowadays the senses are switched. I went with "Hebrew", not just to go with the anachronism as is, but because any reference to Jews in Russian had a derogatory sense to it.

On the other hand, I used about six dictionaries, and picked up details here and there that made things easier. For example that the word that literally means "doghouse" is sometimes used colloquially for a human habitation. I suppose getting creative ("rat's den"?) would have been reasonable, but I opted for a simple "hovel". One choice I made that may or may not be reasonable is that the two mathematicians of the story are once referred to as "monsters" or "freaks"--I think the tamer "oddballs" is more natural. (But maybe I'm prejudiced.)

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to The Genius
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Petersburg by Andrei Bely
  2. The Old Mathematician by Dinah Maria Muloch
  3. Q.E.D. by Jack Eric Morpurgo
  4. Young Archimedes by Aldous Huxley
  5. The Ore Miner's Wife by Karl Iagnemma
  6. Stand and Deliver by Ramon Menendez
  7. Brain Wave by Poul Anderson
  8. The Mathematics of Nina Gluckstein by Esther Vilar
  9. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  10. The A, B, C of the Higher Mathematics by Ramaswami Aiyar
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Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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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)