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The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990)
Arthur C. Clarke
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Fusun Akman

The topics change from the Titanic to a giant octopus but a central one is the Mandelbrot set. We are introduced to mathematician-cum-computer wizard Edith Craig who invents software to fix the Y2K problem and later loses her mind staring at the depths of the M-set. Hubby Donald is also in the same business but he is sane. Their nine-year old, Ada, gives lectures to their visitors on the properties of the M-set. Needless to say, they have a pond shaped like the M-set in their castle.

I was very disappointed by Clarke's very long and poetic, but ultimately wrong and insulting description of the Mandelbrot set. This description occurs twice (once in the story as told by little Ada and again in an appendix in Clarke's own voice). His description is wrong because it involves only the distance of a point in the plane to the origin (the absolute value, if you are thinking of the plane as the complex numbers). If that was true, the Mandelbrot set would be symmetrical around the origin, which it obviously is not. I could be generous and say that he is trying to avoid introducing the complex numbers because he doesn't want to scare the readers, but it actually seems to me as if he himself doesn't understand what he is saying. (It would have been possible to avoid introducing the idea of complex numbers without being wrong by defining the map (x,y) -> (x^2-y^2,2xy) which is the same as squaring the complex number x+yi.) And, mostly, I am offended on behalf of my friends in complex dynamics who investigate the Mandelbrot set and other geometric consequences of chaotic dynamics by Clarke's implication that all there is to do with the M-set is look at it on a computer. Like many other areas of math research, computers are useful for providing clues as to what might be true, but in the end it is a human mind which must analyze and explicitly prove the claims in mathematical terms. A good deal was known about complex dynamics before Mandelbrot noticed this set on a computer, and much more is known since from the really deep work of these mathematicians (not at all something that would have been easily done "as soon as man learned to count" as Clarke claims in a completely ridiculous example of hyperbole.)

For a better view of the Mandelbrot set, I suggest you look at Boston University's interactive description.

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Works Similar to The Ghost from the Grand Banks
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Rama II by Arthur C. Clarke / Gentry Lee
  2. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  3. The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke / Stephen Baxter
  4. The Fairy Chessmen by Henry Kuttner
  5. Diaspora by Greg Egan
  6. Habitus by James Flint
  7. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  8. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  9. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  10. Dark as Day by Charles Sheffield
Ratings for The Ghost from the Grand Banks:
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 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifMental Illness, Female Mathematicians,

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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)