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The Push of a Finger (1942)
Alfred Bester
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

Story set in 2909. A Prognostication Machine which can look into the future beyond 50 years (but no earlier) predicts the destruction of the entire universe in about 1000 years. Evidently, a new movement in high-energy physics over the next 600 years leads to developments which ultimately lead to the creation of a machine which can siphon off energy from a parallel universe. As soon as the machine starts, something goes wrong and the energy from the other universe destroys ours.

A reporter, who stumbles on to the top-secret prognosticator complex, sees this future and then helps figure out by backward reasoning and some help from the prognosticator how the entire sequence started. The chain of events was set off by one John Fitz-Simmons, Sr., who, on Feb 9, 2909, stumbled into his future wife and exclaimed, “Well, I'll be a pie-eyed emu!”. Over time, the two get married and his son, learning of the phrase, interprets it as a mathematical equation (this is the mathematical rebus on which the story hinges). The “Tension Energy Dynamics Equation” is I = (b/a) * pi * i * e / mu , which is the symbolic equivalent of the pie-eyed emu phrase. All else follows conveniently.

One final twist you can see coming a thousand years away: The senior Mr. Fitz-Simmons is none other than the reporter himself (of course, the reporter does not know this and how his name changes form the last few lines of the story)

Originally published in Astounding, May 1942.

Thanks to Aaron Gullison, whose request for a story about a "pie-eyed ostrich" got us looking for this and to Vijay Fafat who was miraculously able to find it from that description!

Contributed by Anonymous

I liked the story because I knew nothing about math. (I still know nothing about math)

Contributed by Hal Cheney

I am 82 years old and read this story when it appeared. The scene that remains with me is the one in which the Professor is to give his lecture. Students -- mocking him -- enter the lecture hall in wild humor and outlandish costumes. The reporter observes that the Professor is standing at the lectern with his hands placed upon it but not putting any of his weight upon them. The reporter notes how difficult this posture is. The professor, silently, maintains this posture and the students gradually recognize what the Professor is doing and slowly calm down and sober up. When quiet prevails, the Professor calmly starts his lecture -- as though nothing special had happened -- with his story of how his father had one night looked up into the star filled sky and pronounced the formula that he was about to reveal.

(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Push of a Finger
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Men who Murdered Mohammed by Alfred Bester
  2. Freemium by Louis Evans
  3. The Unwilling Professor by Arthur Porges
  4. No-Sided Professor by Martin Gardner
  5. And He Built a Crooked House by Robert A. Heinlein
  6. Aleph Sub One by Margaret St. Clair
  7. The Law by Robert M. Coates
  8. The Circle of Zero by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  9. The Zero Theorem by Pat Rushin (screenplay) / Terry Gilliam (director)
  10. The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine by Greg Egan
Ratings for The Push of a Finger:
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:
2.5/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.25/5 (4 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)