a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Lottery in Babylon [La lotería en Babilonia] (1941)
Jorge Luis Borges
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

In what is clearly a metaphor for the apparent randomness of life (and the theological implications that follow), the great Argentinian writer Borges crafts a tale about the all important lottery in a mythical land of Babylon.

There is not much mathematics in this short story, but perhaps just enough to justify its inclusion in this database.

The narrator notes that it is surprising that no general theory of gaming had existed for a long time, but that after numerous debates "of a legal and mathematical nature", such a theory had begun to form. (This is not so much a reference to Game Theory, a branch of mathematics that would have been in its infancy when this was written, as it is a hint that the theory of probability itself was developed surprisingly late in this history of mathematics considering it fundamental importance in our understanding of the world.) He goes on to explain that this theory resulted in the creation of a more complicated lottery based not only one one drawing (or selection), but in fact on infinitely many drawings.

(quoted from The Lottery in Babylon [La lotería en Babilonia])

The ignorant assume that infinite drawings require infinite time; actually, all that is required is that time be infinitely subdivisible.

This reference to Zeno's paradox may seem bizarre and fantastical if you take literally the notion of a lottery drawing, but when considered as a metaphor for the infinitely many random occurrences between any two points in time, it seems not only sensible but very mathematical, like a suggestion that an infinite series would be needed to completely work out the true probability if all of the randomness of the world were taken into account.

This story first appeared in 1941 in the literary magazine Sur, and was then included in the 1941 collection The Garden of Forking Paths (El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan). I am grateful to Charles Greathouse for bringing this work to my attention.

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Works Similar to The Lottery in Babylon [La lotería en Babilonia]
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
  2. Three Plates on the Table [Tres platos en la mesa] by José María Gironella
  3. The Babelogic of Mathematics by Vijay Fafat
  4. Blue Tigers by Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Ghosts by Lord Dunsany
  6. Plane and Fancy by P. Schuyler Miller
  7. When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte] by Kurd Lasswitz
  8. Probabilitea by John Chu
  9. The Book of Alephs by Inderjeet Mani
  10. Been a long, long time by R.A. Lafferty
Ratings for The Lottery in Babylon [La lotería en Babilonia]:
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:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (2 votes)

TopicInfinity, Probability/Statistics,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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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)