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Dead Ancients Trilogy (2008)
Peter Hobbs

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

Pythagoras explains in first person his celebrated theorem, complete with diagrams and shaded triangles. It is a source of substantial chagrin to him because it naturally leads to the irrational numbers. As he puts it humorously:

“The ratio of the diagonal to the side is not a ratio of integers. It is not even a fraction or recurring decimal. I can't begin to express my frustration with this one. […]. We've been sitting on it for a while now, keeping it quiet. If people found out, all hell will break loose […] and we're going to look miserable and stupid when we sit there and shrug. There's no reason to it, it's completely irrational. Makes you think, though, if only it had been 1.5. Or 1.4, I'd have settled for that. But no, it had to be 1.4142135…. goes on forever. Sometimes, the Gods really piss me off”

Archimedes, on the other hand, is having problems of his own. As he jogs, geometric thoughts stat crossing his head. He feels like a hamster treading a giant wheel but on the outside. The dome of the sky, the horizon, the progressive shortening and lengthening of his shadow as he runs, they all crowd in [e.g. “The Horizon is not a plane but a circle of constant size with him as its center”]. Suddenly, he stumbles and falls, getting knocked on his head. When he comes around, he has a distinctly odd experience where he is as large as the earth — it is quite funny to read and has implicit link to his statement about moving the earth if only he could find the place to stand and a proper lever.

The thoughts of Sisyphus are not mathematical though quite poetic.

Perhaps the author is aware, but the references to decimal representations of numbers in the Pythagorean passage are seriously anachronistic. Decimal representations for whole numbers were a rare and uncommon thing in Europe at the time, finite decimal representations for fractions were only occasionally being used in Asia, and nobody in the world seems to have had the idea of an infinite decimal expansion or would have known a connection between repetition in the decimal expansion and the possibility of expressing a number as a ratio of integers. On the one hand, this may seem to diminish Pythagoras, since he did not know what many school children learn today about numbers. On the other hand, it actually would have been quite silly for Pythagoras to have doubted or been upset by the existence of irrational numbers had he known what this story suggests he knew about decimals. After all, if one believes in decimal expansions for numbers it is very easy to construct one which does not repeat!

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Works Similar to Dead Ancients Trilogy
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Pythagoras the Mathemagician by Karim El Koussa
  2. The Divine Proportions of Luca Pacioli by W.A.W. Parker
  3. The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw
  4. The Death of Archimedes by Karel Capek
  5. A Szirakuzai Óriás [A Giant of Syracuse] by Száva István
  6. Papos by Alex Rose
  7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  8. Continuums by Robert Carr
  9. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  10. City of Infinite Bridges by Alex Rose
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GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifReal Mathematicians,
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)