a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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I of Newton (1970)
Joe Haldeman
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
Highly Rated!

Contributed by Craig Bauer

In this short story a mathematics professor accidentally summons a demon by cursing while working on a problem involving integration. The devil brags that he is able to disprove Fermat's last theorem, square the circle, find the ultimate prime, go faster than the speed of light, and make two electrons occupy the same quantum state. It is up to the mathematician to outsmart the demon and save his soul. This is a tale in which the mathematician is portrayed as being very cool.

The story is quite short (6 pages) and intentionally funny. It can be found in the 1974 anthology Cosmic Laughter, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston and edited by Joe Haldeman.

Note: A television adaptation was made for the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone. In the TV version, the mathematician is played (believe it or not) by Sherman Helmsley (of The Jeffersons) and the demon by Ron Glass (from Barney Miller). They both do a great job with their parts and the episode is tons of fun. Although it duplicates many of the lines from the story (including the opening "mumbling" computation) exactly, some of the math has been cut out. In particular, the whole part about Fermat's Last Theorem (and the mathematician trying to copy the demon's counter-example off of the blackboard before he erases is) is eliminated. Instead, we have a more detailed discussion of what the demon does with the souls he collects (he suggests that the mathematician could become a "living binary digit")! Similarly, although the demon does not repeatedly change forms and sizes as he does in the story, he does keep changing his t-shirts which have "hell" jokes on them. Most significantly, the mathematician remains the hero in the story, and finds the near loss of his soul as a minor distraction from his important computations.

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Works Similar to I of Newton
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Devil and Simon Flagg by Arthur Porges
  2. Prost, der Faust-Tragödie (-n)ter Teil [Prost: the (-n)th Part of the Faust Tragedy] by Kurd Lasswitz
  3. Cantor’s Dragon by Craig DeLancy
  4. When the Devil Took the Professor [Wie der Teufel den Professor holte] by Kurd Lasswitz
  5. Damned Souls and Statistics by Robert Dawson
  6. The Rose Acacia by Ralph P. Boas, Jr.
  7. Geometria by Guillermo del Toro (Writer and Director)
  8. Hell of a Fix by Matthew Hughes
  9. The Devil a Mathematician Would Be by A.J. Lohwater
  10. Fermat's Last Tango by Joanne Sydney Lessner / Joshua Rosenblum
Ratings for I of Newton:
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:
3.67/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.67/5 (3 votes)

GenreHumorous, Fantasy,
MotifCool/Heroic Mathematicians,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumTelevision Series or Episode, Short 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)