a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|A student harangues his physics professor about the possibility that all mathematical proofs are incorrect. His argument is based on the supposed uncertainty about the validity of proofs of the Four Color Map problem and some sort of "induction" argument.
This idea of cutting the length of the proof in half and applying induction is probably an allusion to Zeno's Paradox. In fact, the end of the story explicitly brings Zeno into it, though the analogy here is not a perfect one as the number of lines in a proof can only be divided in half a finite number of times.
From a purely literary point of view, there is nothing wrong with this story. But, it really does not try to do anything interesting in that regard either. It is mostly just a brief dialogue between the two characters followed by the slightly surreal effect on the character falling to the floor.
So, I am guessing that this story is trying to be deep or philosophical. (This is further justified by the fact that it was published not in a literary journal but in the "Futures" column of the scientific journal Nature [28 May 2009].) However, anyone who has considered questions of the foundations of mathematics, from either a philosophical or mathematical point of view, has to have considered this idea that "math might be wrong" before, and this story does not really add anything new.
Again, there is nothing wrong with the philosophy either. I think any reasonable person would have to admit that there is a possibility that any given "proof" is invalid and (since Gödel) that math itself may be inconsistent. But, I would strongly recommend readers look at Division by Zero by Ted Chiang which addresses the same idea but is spectacular both from a literary and philosophical point of view.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)