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The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor) (1848)
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A very charming, humorous description of the final days of an old man who retires to a small Dutch hamlet where no one knows him. While any arrival of a stranger in a tiny community is always a cause for gossip and conjecture, in this particular instance, the village curiosity could find no relief since:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor))

“He had brought with him a sufficient stock of groceries to last for many months, was never sick, had no children and manifested no inclination for tavern gossip; so that there was no such thing as getting at him, and the whole village was still at fault.”

There curiosity was flamed to no end because of the complete seclusion of the stranger. So much so that, very humorously:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor))

“Even the village dogs acquired a habit of lying in the road directly before the stranger’s door, waiting with open jaws and distended tongues to snap up any chance piece of information, and bear it to their masters.”

The mystery was unraveled when the man’s nephew arrived and readily divulged all the information anyone could seek:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor))

“The old man was a celebrated mathematician, who had spent all his life in investigating the abstruse science, and would probably plod on in the same fascinating pursuit till the day of his death. He had a larger library of big black vellum books than the Dominie and Doctor together could muster,—always wore round his neck a silver medal given by some long extinguished mathematical club, in honor of having, after only fifteen years of laborious study, solved an exceedingly intricate equation, of which no one had ever heard, or, in all human probability, ever would hear, and more over was a corresponding member of four Mathematical Associations and one Royal Mathematical Institute.”

With this sterling ledger of accomplishments on display, the mathematician’s legend grew very quickly:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor))

“Then reports of the old gentleman's learning spread apace. It was said that he could count the stars, compute eclipses, weigh the earth, and do many other things then considered as bordering on the wonderful.”

The village cleric and the school master both challenged the mathematician out of jealousy - a common practice in the middle ages. They were flummoxed by the 2 mathematical questions posed by the old man. After that, the old man was left alone with great respect. As they saw:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor))

“He was in truth a singular specimen. Every idea he had was of a mathematical tendency. All his thoughts were a curious compound of sines and tangents, roots and equations. He even carried his fantasies into every operation of common life, thereby often causing a ludicrous effect. For relaxation he cultivated a little piece of ground, which, for regularity and exactness of proportion, in course of time, a capital model for a Chinese mandarin’s garden. All the trees were trimmed off into spheres and cones, while his vines, instead of being allowed to follow their natural bent, were rudely trained up in exact parallels. The consequence was, that neither trees nor vines ever bore any fruit, which was, however, n matter of very little moment to the mathematician, who felt it sufficient compensation for any such loss, to observe his favorite study thus accurately pictured forth to the eye.

Then the grass-plot was a marvel to the whole surrounding country. The sight wandered over a vast area of circles, squares, triangles and parallelograms. There was not a bush which did not represent a centre ; not a line of cabbages or cresses which was not planted to form a radius or secant. And, in particular, the pride of the whole garden was a huge ellipse. It was formed by a close row of corn, which, for the purpose of illustration, was kept with all its natural exuberances so closely cropped, that it never ventured to bear a single kernel. This was scientifically bisected and dissected by such a vast variety of chords, tangents, secants, parabolas, that the whole theory of conic sections was spread out as a map. Not the minutest particular was wanting to give the design completeness.”

The mathematician was not a fussy man and bore no irritation toward almost anything in life - bad coffee, unmade bed, rumpled clothes, etc. But he was as an enraged lion if someone cast any aspersions or cheapness toward mathematics. In a funny episode, a visitor once admired his silver medal and “inconsiderately inquired its intrinsic cost. The enraged mathematician caught him by his collar, and by a series of well adjusted kicks, landed him safely outside in the road. ‘A very fair illustration of ricochet motion”, mathematician said.’ ” This reminded me of the famous episode with Euclid (A youth who had begun to read geometry with Euclid, when he had learnt the first proposition, inquired, “What do I get by learning these things?" So Euclid called a slave and said "Give him threepence, since he must make a gain out of what he learns.”)

In the end, the mathematician was found dead in his study and the villager had varied reactions:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor))

“At last the old mathematician went the way of all flesh. There was no preliminary sickness, but he was found sitting up in his chair dead, with his slate before him covered with closely written figures. The whole village rushed to see him, and among the crowd came the Dominie and the Schoolmaster. They scanned the slate attentively, and though neither could comprehend the simplest equation of the whole confused conglomerated mass, each felt bound to give an opinion. The Schoolmaster pretended to discover at the end a triumphant and satisfactory answer to the problem, and hence argued that the mathematician had died in an excess of joy at having his labor crowned with succuess. The Dominie, on the contrary, proved by several long words of indisputable incomprehensibility, that the result was wrong, and that hence the mathematician had died of grief. The only effect of the argument was to raise a deadly feud between the Church and School, which was never fairly made up.

In the final irony:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor))

“The grave and coffin were made of the most mathematical proportions, and the funeral took place in the midst of u great concourse, many of whom almost expected to see the learned man rise up from the bier, and fly off to the realms of space, striding a comet. But no such result happened. The mathematician lay quietly in the grave, with his medal on his breast, and the nephew departed with the old man’s gold and silver, leaving the books and manuscripts to the mercy of the rats and mice.”

This anonymous story appeared in the September 1848 issue of American Literary Magazine.

Available Free Online at "The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor)" is available as a PDF from Vijay Fafat and Prof. Mythili Vutukuru's website.

(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 Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Porter Piper by Anonymous
  2. The Old Mathematician by Dinah Maria Muloch
  3. The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) by Yoko Ogawa
  4. The Birds by Aristophanes
  5. The Young Mathematician by Anonymous
  6. Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, The Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
  7. Chronicles of a Comer by K.M O'Donnell (aka Barry N. Malzberg)
  8. Tracking the Random Variable by Marcos Donnelly
  9. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
  10. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
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MotifAnti-social Mathematicians,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)