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Pi in the Sky (1983)
Rudy Rucker
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by "Vijay Fafat"

The story is about a family which finds an alien artifact on a beach while on vacation: a smooth cone with patterns of stripes on its surface and which produces sound in the same pattern. It turns out to be like a portable hard-drive which contains an enormous amount of information, including details about the alien civilization ("Leutians, from Bernard Star"), a solution to Riemann Hypothesis and "answers to virtually every mathematical puzzle which we have ever proposed". The pattern of stripes turns out to be the decimal expansion of pi, hence the punning title of the story of pi being in/from the sky (it is not clear why the Leuticians would use base 10 for encoding). There are a couple of nice laments in the face of such ready-made knowledge:

(quoted from Pi in the Sky)

“I'm reading the solution to the Riemann Conjecture. I've spent my whole life working on this problem and now your husband's decoding program has found the answer in a goddamn seashell from outer space.” “Aren't you glad?” said Jane. “Isn't it wonderful?” “No,” cried the professor. “It's a disaster! I've lived for nothing!”


(quoted from Pi in the Sky)

“But you miss the intellectual adventure don't you, Morris? Don't you, in a way, wish we could get rid of the cone and go back to the way things were?"

Oh, interesting! So, Rucker had the idea of a message embedded in the decimal expansion of π two years before Carl Sagan used that same idea in Contact. I think Sagan's use is a lot more intriguing (and believable), but Rucker has to get credit for priority!

First published in The 57th Franz Kafka and reprinted in the collection Gnarl. It can be downloaded in PDF format from Rucker's website or in plain text here.

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Works Similar to Pi in the Sky
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Contact by Carl Sagan
  2. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  3. His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
  4. Mimsy Were the Borogoves by Lewis Padgett (aka Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore)
  5. Probability Pipeline by Rudy Rucker / Marc Laidlaw
  6. White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem? by Rudy Rucker
  7. Spacetime Donuts by Rudy Rucker
  8. The Crazy Mathematician by Ralph Sylvester Underwood
  9. Paint ‘Em Green by Burt Filer
  10. Message Found in a Copy of Flatland by Rudy Rucker
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GenreScience Fiction,
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)