a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Coconuts (1926)
Ben Ames Williams

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

The story is a very nicely written tale of one man, Wadlin, whose only passion in life is mathematics - numbers, puzzles, Diophantine equations ("indeterminates"), statistics. As the author describes it in snippets:

(quoted from Coconuts)

"The multiplication table to him was sweeter than the Song of Songs [...] To divide a number into its factors delighted him [..] An incorrect equation was to his eyes the ugliest thing in nature. [...] To his eyes, 2-4-6-8-10 was a thing of beauty; 3-6-9 had an exotic charm".

Wadlin works for a construction company owned by an honest proprietor, Dean Story. Story's rival, Marr, has a much larger company in the same field and he's unscrupulous, to boot. Marr's one weakness is a passion for numbers and a belief in his own mathematical abilities far larger than his actual capability in the field.

The two companies end up as bidders for a hospital project and Wadlin comes to understand that Marr might use under-handed tactics to outbid Story. He arrranges matters so that the night before the bidding, Marr gets tangled up in a Diophantine puzzle which he's unable to solve. As he loses himself in the intricacies of the puzzle, staying up all night, he ends up missing the auction. Honesty and Math win, hurray! This has shades of Nelson Bond's "The Geometrics of Johnny Day" (published much later), which also has a math problem flummoxing dishonest competition.

The puzzle itself is the famous "coconuts" puzzle, which has been analyzed in detail in Martin Gardner's "The Colossal Book of Puzzles" .

Originally published in "The Saturday Evening Post" Oct 9 1926. Appears in the Collection Mathematical Magpie.

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Works Similar to Coconuts
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Geometrics of Johnny Day by Nelson Bond
  2. The Devil and Simon Flagg by Arthur Porges
  3. Say Wen by Ellis Parker Butler
  4. A Matter of Geometry by Ared White
  5. Agha and Math by Vladmir Karapetoff
  6. The Triangular House [La Casa Triangular] by Ramon Gomez de la Serna
  7. Scandal in the Fourth Dimension by Amelia Reynolds Long (as "A.R. Long")
  8. Applied Mathematics by Percival Henry Truman
  9. Arithmetic Town / Arithmetic by Todd McEwen
  10. Fermat's Legacy by Ian Randal Strock
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TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
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)