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The Investigation (1959)
Stanislaw Lem
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!

In investigating a bizarre case of missing -- and apparently resurrected bodies -- an investigator at Scotland Yard consults mystics, philosophers, and (most significantly to the book as well as to this review) a statistician. As the statistician explains, only he is able to really say anything worthwhile about this, or anything else:

(quoted from The Investigation)

Our faces and our fates are shaped by statistics -- we human beings are the resultant of Brownian motion -- incomplete sketches, randomly outlined projections. Perfection, fullness, excellence are all rare exceptions -- they occur only because there is such an excess, so unimaginably much of everything! The daily commonplace is automatically regulated by the world's vastness, its infinite variety; because of it what we see as gaps and breaches complement each other; the mind, for its own self-preservation, finds and integrates scattered fragments. Using religion and philosophy as the cement, we perpetually collect and assemble all the garbage comprised by statistics in order to make sense out of things, to make everything respond in one unified voice like a bell chiming to our glory. But i's only soup...The mathematical order of the universe is our answer to the pyramids of chaos. On every side of us we see bits of life that are completely beyond our understanding -- we label them unusual, but we really don't want to acknowledge them. the only thing that really exists is statistics. The intelligent person is the statistical person. Wil a child be beautiful or ugly? Will he enjoy music? Will he get cancer? It's all decided by a throw of the dice. At the very moment of our conception -- statistics!

[and from elsewhere]

Only my field -- statistics -- can give immediate results. The same applies in the study of cancer. So far as this case is concerned, there will probably be quite a few conflicting theories in time, and I imagine that the ones the public finds most appealing will help to build up the circulation of the more sensational newspapers. This phenomenon will be connected with flying saucers, with astrology, with God only knows what. But all that is none of my business.

From his point of view, understanding the statistics of the resurrections is all that is important, and he does that relatively early in the book:

(quoted from The Investigation)

"If you want me to," Sciss said in a shrill voice, "I will explain my calculations later on. Right now I shall only give you the results. the incidents occurred in a particular sequence: the more recently each incident took place, the farther it is located from the center -- that is, from the site of the first disappearance. In addition, there is another significant item: the time between the respective incidents, counting form the first one, gets longer and longer, although not as if they were in proportion to each other in some specific ratio. But if temperature is also taken into account, it becomes evident that there is a certain regularity. More specifically, the product obtained by multiplying the time elapsed between any two incidents, and the distance separating any two consecutive disappearing-body sites from the center, when multiplied by the differential between the prevailing temperatures at both sites...

"This gives us," Sciss continued after a moment, " a constant of five to nine centimeters per second and degree. [...] If we take a mean of seven centimeters as the true quantity of the constant and then do certain calculations, which I have already completed, we get a rather curious result..."

To what extent is such a mathematical correspondence a satisfactory explanation? To what extent do we tolerate such explanations in science? These are the questions that this book addresses in the case of a particularly unusual example.

Contributed by Paul Friedman

"Of course, the author has to exaggerate a little, to make his work fun to read. Obviously, the world isn't totally random-- it has plenty of very predictable and reliable patterns. But that's the main mystery of life (for me, anyway)-- with the infinity of things going on in the universe, how is it possible for any part of it to be simple and predictable? Why doesn't the complexity spread to ALL parts of the universe? (In which case, there wouldn't be any safe little corners for creatures like us to live."

Contributed by Lindsay Brown

As an English Literature/Russian Language double major, I was first introduced to this novel as a sophomore in undergrad. The rest of my class hated this book. No one could seem to make sense of it ... I fell in love with it, though, precisely because of its use of Math and its demonstration of how humans have created and used statistics to try to define the improbable ... The story shows clearly how backwards this approach to life truly is.The use of Brownian Motion to describe human behavior in the midst of all this predetermined statistical structure is pure genius, in my mind. I could go on and on ...

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Works Similar to The Investigation
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Probability Murder by Michael Flynn
  2. Inspector Morimoto and the Sushi Chef: A Detective Story set in Japan by Timothy Hemion (aka Anthony Hayter)
  3. Drunkard's Walk by Frederik Pohl
  4. The Fringe (Episode: The Equation) by J.R. Orci (Screenplay) / David H. Goodman (Screenplay)
  5. The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
  6. His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
  7. Death Qualified: A Mystery of Chaos by Kate Willhelm
  8. The Square Cube Law by Fletcher Pratt
  9. The Adventure of the Russian Grave by William Barton / Michael Capobianco
  10. The Extraordinary Hotel or the Thousand and First Journey of Ion the Quiet by Naum Ya. Vilenkin
Ratings for The Investigation:
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:
3.25/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.25/5 (4 votes)

GenreMystery, Science Fiction,
MotifFuture Prediction through Math,

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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)