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The Gigantic Fluctuation (1973)
Arkady Strugatsky / Boris Strugatsky
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

This is an oddly funny story about a man who becomes the "focus point of all miracles in the world", a "gigantic fluctuation". He somehow appears to attract extremely improbably but possible statistical events (like generating a magnetic field out of the blue, having a woman close to him fly away due to a freak atmospheric phenomenon, etc) and thence considers himself to be a phenomenon of extreme fluctuation in Nature. The story is set as a late evening conversation on a beach between a boy and the Fluctuation. There is some discussion about probability and coin-tossing along the way. He finally walks away to ensure the boy does not get hurt because of his own improbabilities. There's a funny line in there: '"No," he answered dully. "How can I be a mathematician? I'm a fluctuation."'

(quoted from The Gigantic Fluctuation)

"Half of what?" I asked, and immediately realized I had put my foot in it again. He was very surprised at my question.

"Don't you even know the theory of probability?" he asked.

I answered that we hadn't got to that yet at school.

"In that case, you won't understand a thing," he said, disappointed.

"Then you explain it," I said angrily, and he obediently complied. He told me that probability was the likelihood of one or another event coming to pass according to the ratio of the favourable cases to the whole number of cases possible.

"And where do the sandwiches come in?" I asked.

"A sandwich might fall butter-side down or butter-side up," he said. "And so, generally speaking, if you try dropping a sandwich at random, it will sometimes fall one way and sometimes another. In half the cases, it falls butter-side up, and the rest of the time butter-side down. D'you see?"

"Ye-es," I said, for some reason remembering I hadn't had supper yet.

"In such cases, they say that the probability of a desired result is equal to half--to one-half."

He went on to say that if you dropped a sandwich one hundred times, for example, it might fall butter-side up fifty-five or merely twenty times, rather than fifty: that only by dropping it for a very long time, over and over, would it fall butter-side up in approximately half the number of cases. I pictured this miserable, open sandwich (maybe, even a caviar sandwich) after it had been thrown a thousand times on the floor, even if the latter wasn't too dirty. Then I asked were there really people who did such stupid things. He set in to explain that, actually, sandwiches were not used for this aim, but money, like when you toss for something. And he explained how it was done, burying himself deeper in a labyrinth of examples, so that soon I stopped following him and sat looking at the gloomy sky, and thought it would probably rain. From this first lecture on the theory of probability, I can recall only the half-familiar term 'mathematical expectation'. The stranger used this term repeatedly, and every time I visualized a large hall, like a waiting-room with a tiled floor, where people sat with briefcases and blotting-pads, from time to time throwing money or sandwiches up to the ceiling, and awaiting something with fixed attention. Even now, I often see it in my dreams. And then the stranger almost deafened me with the ringing term: 'the maximum theorem of Moivre and Laplace', adding that all this had nothing to do with the matter.

"You know, this isn't what I wanted to tell you, not at all," he said, his voice losing its former liveliness.

"Excuse me," I inquired, "I suppose you're a mathematician?"

"No," he answered dully. "How can I be a mathematician? I'm a fluctuation."

Out of respect, I said nothing.

"Well, so it seems I haven't yet told you my story," he recalled.

"You were talking about sandwiches," I said.

"You see, my uncle was the first to notice it," he continued. "I was very absent-minded, see, and often dropped sandwiches. And mine always fell butter-side up."

"Well, that was lucky," I said.

He sighed bitterly.

"It's lucky when it happens once in a while... But when it always does! Just think ... always!" I did not understand what he meant, and told him so.

"My uncle knew a thing or two about mathematics, and was interested in the theory of probability. He advised me to try tossing money. We both tossed. Even then, I didn't realize that I was under a curse, but my uncle did. That's what he told me then: 'You're under a curse!'"

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Works Similar to The Gigantic Fluctuation
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Monday Begins on Saturday by Arkady Strugatsky / Boris Strugatsky
  2. Off Day! by Al Feldstein (writer) / Jack Kamen (artist)
  3. Probability Storm by Julian Reid
  4. The Law by Robert M. Coates
  5. The Devil You Don't by Keith Laumer
  6. A Very Good Year by Jack C. Haldeman (II)
  7. Conservation of Probability by Brook West
  8. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  9. Inflexible Logic by Russell Maloney
  10. Another Cock Tale by Chris Miller
Ratings for The Gigantic Fluctuation:
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Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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