a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Snow (1998)
Geoffrey A. Landis
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

An apparently schizophrenic, homeless woman sells her body to get herself and her infant off the street on a cold night. Only at the end of this extremely short story do we realize that the imaginary world of "crysalline beauty" that she sometimes loses herself in is not part of her delusions, but mathematics itself:

(quoted from Snow)

She took out the first envelope, and carefully spread it open. Her other world was very close, the world that she created out of herself. She knew that somewhere, somewhere out in the world there were other people who knew how to enter that other world. Sometimes she wondered if she had ever met any of them. but, she decided that really didn't matter. What mattered was that other world.

She checked once more that Christie was sleeping soundly, and then, writing in almost invisibly tiny script, she started.

"Theorem 431. Consider the set of non-singular connections mapping an 8-dimensional vector space onto a differentiable Hausdorff manifold..."

I really like this story. It is beautifully written. I'm sorry that I basically have to give away the punchline in this review, but I did not see a way to summarize it without mentioning this point since otherwise it is simply about a homeless woman. I'm also sorry that I have to complain about it.

Clearly, Landis knows a lot about math and science. I mean, he's actually a physicist when he's not writing fiction. But, there are a few things here that bug me. I am always bothered a bit when I see the stereotype of the insane mathematician in fiction since I think this distorts the public perception of what mathematicians are really like. Similarly, the stereotype of the isolated mathematician is utilized here. The former stereotype here is at least believable (though I do not believe there is a correlation between math and insanity, of course there must be simply by chance some people who are both), but the latter here is a bit ridiculous. This is not the sort of mathematics that one can do in complete isolation.

I suppose it is not a big deal, but her reference to a connection does not make sense as she writes it. (A connection should be a map between the tangent spaces, or some other fiber bundle, at two points on the manifold and not a map from a vector space to the manifold.) Another similarly unimportant point is this: why does he say that the vector field of the falling snow is divergence-free? I would expect the wind blowing between buildings to result in pressure changes from point to point.

Originally published in Starlight 2 (Tor, 1998) it was republished in the anthology Impact Parameter.

Contributed by Geoffrey A. Landis

Say, thanks for listing the story.

The velocity vector field of falling snow is divergence-free because pressure differences in a fluid (like air) equilibrate at the speed of sound. Consider a unit cube one meter on a side, and suppose the smallest velocity difference a human eye can detect is one cm/sec. If one face of the cube had a 1 cm/sec more incident air than the remaining faces, the pressure in the cube would increase by 1000 pascal per second. But the dynamic pressure of air moving at 1 cm/sec is only 0.06 mPa. So any divergence of this magnitude could only be sustained for 60 microseconds. (this is why aerodynamics call airspeed ≪ speed of sound "incompressible flow". )

Over continent-sized regions, you can sustain atmospheric pressure differences. But on a city-block scale, flow can be modeled as divergenceless to a very very good level of approximation. --you're right about the word "connection," though. Mea culpa.

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Works Similar to Snow
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Ripples in the Dirac Sea by Geoffrey A. Landis
  2. Ouroboros by Geoffrey A. Landis
  3. Approaching Perimelasma by Geoffrey A. Landis
  4. Border Guards by Greg Egan
  5. Singleton by Greg Egan
  6. Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro
  7. Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
  8. A Game of Consequences by David Langford
  9. Eye of the Beholder by Alex Kasman
  10. Antibodies by Charles Stross
Ratings for Snow:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Mental Illness, Female Mathematicians,
TopicAnalysis/Calculus/Differential, Mathematical Physics,
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)