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Satisfactory Proof (2005)
Cynthia Morrison Phoel

A Master's degree student pouts and complains about the people around him as he earns his Master's degree in mathematics at a Bulgarian university.

Although the titular phrase "satisfactory proof" appears in the story only in the non-mathematical context of an individual disproving a stereotype about bushy "mono-brows", it presumably refers to the assessment by the thesis committee that the student's research in number theory was "good enough". In particular, after having sought out Professor Mateev, supposedly one of the most brilliant number theorists in the world, to work with, Plamen is seemingly devastated by Mateev's warm but not sufficiently flattering remarks after his thesis defense:

(quoted from Satisfactory Proof)

The panel spent only five minutes deliberating his fate, during which time the cookies were devoured. Mateev delivered the news: Plamen's proof was deemed of limited import, but still fine work -- the work of a gifted mathematician. "Congratulations," he concluded with robust colegiality.

If, in that moment, Plamen could be grateful for any one thing, it was being spared a hearty clap on the shoulder. He was not deceived by Mateev's good cheer. He stared at the frames of the professor's glasses, thick and obdurate as the man himself, trying to contain his disappointment. Finally, he said, "Of limited import?"

"Well, of course," Professor Mateev said. "But what did you expect? You are at the beginning of your career. Greater things will come."

Mateev's remarks seem perfectly reasonable to me, and not at all the insult that Plamen takes it as. It is not only in this instance that Plamen seems to assume the worst of the professor he admires. He also takes Mateev's challenges to his mathematical claims as actual attempts to disprove them rather than to help him improve his proof. Similarly, his own family and Mateev's relationship with his daughter cause Plamen sorrow. Basically, he's an annoying whiner...but, assuming that this was the purpose of the story, I think it is quite well written and interesting!

Originally published in Harvard Review 28 (2005) and reprinted in Phoel's collection Cold Snap.

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Works Similar to Satisfactory Proof
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  2. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  3. The Last Theorem by Buzz Mauro
  4. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  5. The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
  6. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
  7. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
  8. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
  9. Elegantly, In the Least Number of Steps by Monica McFawn
  10. The Arnold Proof by Jessica Francis Kane
Ratings for Satisfactory Proof:
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:
4/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Academia, Proving Theorems, Math Education,
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)