a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Living Equation (1934)
Nathan Schachner
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

A mathematician invents a machine that provides abstract mathematical objects ("vectors" and "tensors") a certain reality. His goal is to allow them not to solve equations but to create new ones. However, before he works out exactly the settings he wants to put in the machine, it is started inadvertently by a burglar and the lawyer guest he has staying at his house, with disastrous consequences (e.g. buildings move, or vanish filled with people who find themselves in a place without recognizable dimension, time scales change in different parts of the universe, land masses disappear and swallow oceans, etc.)

Reading this story reminds me of many other works of mathematical fiction. It presents the idea that true reality is mathematics while what we consider the physical universe is just an illusion (as do Mathenauts and Luminous). The story also suggests that mathematical discoveries can change reality (as do Unreasonable Effectiveness and Distress).

However, it is remarkable that this story does all of that and was written in 1934! In 2009 (as I write this), the description of this machine that can do mathematics and what it can achieve seems quaintly old-fashioned, but for a story written before the invention of anything we today would call a computer, it is quite impressive.

Originally published in Astounding Stories, September 1934. (Thanks to Fred Galvin for providing me with a readable copy of this old classic.)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

[Vijay writes to say that Paul McAuley's novel Eternal Light (1993) has similar themes, but may not deserve its own separate listing here. In particular, he says]: This hard-SF novel describes a million-year old war between the survivors of an ancient civilization and the "marauders"; caught in the cross-fire are all the budding civilizations in the galaxy [Fermi's paradox is given special treatment in the novel]. And then there are the "Angels" - enigmatic, transcendental beings who want to stop the marauders from using the Angel-technology left behind in the corporeal universe since the technology enables "contginuous creation", the art of creating new matter using energy siphoned off from other universes of the multiverse. Their weapon of choice for this? Mathematics, of course. Here're some descriptions of these weapons (quite reminsicent of the language in Schachner's "The Living Equation"):

“[The weapons were] a little like the infolded dimensionless webs which had wrapped suns before they had flared, stuff that intersected at odd angles with the familiar dimensions of the quotidian universe, weapons stripped down to pure mathematics, idea become word become deed…[…] the abstract weapon of the angels”

“I wish I knew more about the weapon they gave you. Always I have dreamed of being able to see an equation…” [The weapon looks] like burning diamond dust. Like Light. […] The ultimate machine, a mathematical equation that operates on the virtual universe.”

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Works Similar to The Living Equation
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Distress by Greg Egan
  2. WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
  3. The Mathenauts by Norman Kagan
  4. Doctor Who: The Algebra of Ice by Lloyd Rose (pseudonym of Sarah Tonyn)
  5. Luminous by Greg Egan
  6. Napier's Bones by Derryl Murphy
  7. Aleph Sub One by Margaret St. Clair
  8. Unreasonable Effectiveness by Alex Kasman
  9. Normed Trek by Harun Šiljak
  10. Calculated Risks by Seanan McGuire
Ratings for The Living Equation:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Mathematical Physics,
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)