a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Dragon's Egg (1980)
Robert L. Forward
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Contributed by Lapo Fanciullo

[In this science fiction novel], the crew of the first spaceship to ever visit a neutron star discover that the star is inhabited by a race - the Cheela - whose metabolism is based on nuclear reactions instead of chemical reactions. Thanks to this the Cheela live about one million times faster than terrestrial life, and in a few days (for the humans) they progress from prehistory to space age.

What may interest you is the rather detailed description of how the neutron star inhabitants, still in their stone age, discover arithmetics.

A clan of Cheela need to abandon their living place and move to a safer region that was discovered by a pack of hunters, so they're collecting pods to eat during the journey. One of the discoverers, a female Cheela called Great-Crack, wonders if they're collecting enough and has an idea (Forward's wonderlful sentence is "in a flash of inspiration, one of the greatest mathematical minds ever hatched in the past or future of the cheela made a great leap of abstract thought").

Great-Crack has conserved a seed from each pod she's eaten during the voyage. She puts the seeds in a row, then she takes some of the gathered pods and puts them in a row as well, one beside each seed: that' how many pods a Cheela needs to eat in travel. Making a row for each member of the clan, she runs out of pods before she's made a row for everybody, so she realizes there's not enough food.

The leader of the clan, trusting his intuitive notion of quantities, believes they're ready to go ("There must be enough there to feed all the clan, for I have never seen so many pods before") and is not able to abstract the concept of "number" from the seeds to the pods, refusing to believe that seeds can tell him if he'll survive the journey. Great-Crack has to challenge him to a fight, win and become the new leader in order to save the clan from starvation.

While the clan is gathering new food she also perfects her new discovery, inventing a base 12 numeration. It is thanks to her that the clan will make it to the new land.

I'm not certain this is enough to make a piece of mathematical fiction of Dragon's Egg, but certainly the book presents mathematics - even if it's just the act of counting - as something vitally useful, connects it with a dramatic journey and has a woman (although an alien) as the main mathematician. I could hardly imagine a more intriguing and stereotype-free way of presenting arithmetics.

In case you decide to include it in your site, my marks are:

  • Literary quality 4/5
  • Mathematical content 2/5 (the mathematics dealt with is not at all advanced, but it's presented in a way that makes you realize how it must have been difficult to discover what every first-grader today knows, and gives you a hint of how it could have been done).

Contributed by David

I vote "3" for math, because of both the discovery of arithmetic by the cheela but the use of statistical analysis by the humans to discover the neutron star in the first place, and the constant use of math throughout to accommodate the time differential.

Contributed by Anonymous

Was Robert L. Forward allergic to editors or something? In the hands of a better writer, Dragon's Egg could have been great, but as it stands, it's one of the worst novels I've ever read. I wish I could give it 0/5 for literary quality, because it's so bad that it doesn't even deserve one point.

Contributed by Dennis Caswell

I would not consider this to be a mathematical work. However, I have read that this was considered to be a scientific essay in the form of a novel, and with this I agree. Robert Lull Forward was a scientist who turned to writing science fiction. As wouzld be expected from a scientist, the science was accurate as was known at the time. This was his first published novel, and it shows it. His later works (especially the Rocheworld books) show a maturity in writing. Robert L. Forward enjoyed going to science fiction conventions, and I did get to meet him a few times. Very nice person.

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Works Similar to Dragon's Egg
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Flight of the Dragonfly (aka Rocheworld) by Robert L. Forward
  2. Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
  3. The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
  4. Report from the Ambassador to Cida-2 by Clifton Cunningham
  5. In the River by Justin Stanchfield
  6. Pop Quiz by Alex Kasman
  7. Incandescence by Greg Egan
  8. Conversations on Mathematics with a Visitor from Outer Space by David Ruelle
  9. Luminous by Greg Egan
  10. Old Faithful by Raymond Z. Gallun
Ratings for Dragon's Egg:
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:
2.25/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (4 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAliens, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,

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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)