a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Legend of Howard Thrush (2005)
Alex Kasman
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

I always have enjoyed the American folk tale, a medium in which one pretends to be speaking earnestly and in all sincerity about a history so ridiculous that it it simply cannot be taken seriously. There are tales of the great wood cutter Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, and tales of Pecos Bill who single handedly dug the Rio Grande, but there are no tall tales about the great mathematicians of the American frontier. At least, there weren't any until now. This story, which appears in the collection Reality Conditions, tells the tale of Howard Thrush and his great contributions to mathematics. Here's a sample:

(quoted from The Legend of Howard Thrush)

When he first went into grad school, it looked like it was going to be quite the golden age for people like him. Mathematics was, rightfully, becoming more and more important in the world. People were hiring mathematicians to help them with everything: designing flying machines, figuring out travel plans for salesmen who wanted to visit a bunch of towns once each, working out how much to charge per yard for their carpets to maximize their profits and how much paint to buy if they needed to cover the area under the curve y= 1/x2 between x= 0 and x = 1.

The problem was, with so many mathematicians working on problems day and night, there just weren't enough variables to go around. It didn't take long for them to notice that with just a to z and A to Z, there was barely enough to last out the year. Talk of the Great Variable Shortage filled the mathematical mess halls and all those great brains set themselves to figuring out what to do. The ones who'd spent too much time in civil work proposed a rationing, and seeing as nobody had a better idea, they started in with that. At night, when few people were working anyway, you could use just about any variable you wanted, but during the day only people working on the most important of problems had access to the choicest of them like x and t.

The few mathematicians with a good liberal training in the classics made an important contribution by suggesting the use of foreign substitutes like Θ and ℵ, but everyone knew that this was just delaying the inevitable. And nobody liked to think what would happen then.

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Works Similar to The Legend of Howard Thrush
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. I Had to Call In a Mathematician by Erik Talvila
  2. Agha and Math by Vladmir Karapetoff
  3. Normed Trek by Harun Šiljak
  4. Uncle Georg's Attic by Ben Schumacher
  5. The Murdered Mathematician by Harry Stephen Keeler
  6. Silas P. Cornu's Dry Calculator by Henry Hering
  7. Monster by Alex Kasman
  8. The Adventures of Topology Man by Alex Kasman
  9. Pythagoras's Darkest Hour by Colin Adams
  10. Cardano and the Case of the Cubic by Jeff Adams
Ratings for The Legend of Howard Thrush:
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 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

MotifCool/Heroic Mathematicians,
MediumShort 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)