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The Mathematician's Nightmare: The Vision of Professor Squarepunt (1954)
Bertrand Russell

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

This short story by [renowned philosopher and mathematician Bertrand] Russell is a mild satire on numerology, taking [Sir Arthur] Eddington's obsession with it and spinning it as a “nightmare” of one Prof. Squarepunt. In the dream, the professor sees all the numbers standing around in concentric circles with Pi at the center, lording over them (at one point, the text goes: “Pi waved his conductor's baton and proclaimed in a voice of thunder: ‘Silence! Or you shall all become incommensurable.' All turned pale and Submitted”)

As the numbers introduce themselves to the professor, they recount the properties which make them special. The proceedings are disrupted by a minor revolt by Number 137 (supported by Sir Eddington), which wants freedom from the oppressive rule:

"You are right! It is their metaphysic that I cannot bear. They still pretend that they are eternal, though long ago their conduct showed that they think no such thing. We all found Plato's heaven dull and decided that it would be more fun to govern the sensible world. Since we descended from the Empyrean we have had emotions not unlike yours: each Odd loves its attendant Even; and the Evens feel kindly towards the Odds, in spite of finding them very odd. Our empire now is of this world, and when the world goes pop, we shall go pop too."

Number 137, of course, is the near inverse of the fine structure constant in Physics and Eddington's numerology maintained that the constant really should be exactly equal to 1/137. As Russell puts it, “But it was above all in physics that 137 showed its prowess, which was not unlike that attributed to the number 666.”

As he awakes from his sleep, “With a banshee wail, the whole vast array dissolved in mist. And, as he woke, the Professor heard himself saying, "So much for Plato!"

This story appeared as one of Russell's "Nightmares Of Eminent Persons And Other Stories", each of which is intended as a serious commentary of some sort. As the preface of the book states: "It is only fair to warn the reader that not all the stories in this volume are intended to cause amusement."

BTW, see Logicomix for the life of Bertrand Russell himself presented in the form of a graphic novel.

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Works Similar to The Mathematician's Nightmare: The Vision of Professor Squarepunt
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Kandelman's Krim: A Realistic Fantasy by John Lighton Synge
  2. Numberland by George Weinberg
  3. Squate by Tom Blackford
  4. Napier's Bones by Derryl Murphy
  5. Flatterland: like Flatland, only more so by Ian Stewart
  6. Lost in the Math Museum by Colin Adams
  7. Journey into Geometries by Marta Sved
  8. A Foundation in Wisdom by Robert Loyd Watson
  9. Let's Consider Two Spherical Chickens by Tommaso Bolognesi
  10. The Root and the Ring by Wyman Guin
Ratings for The Mathematician's Nightmare: The Vision of Professor Squarepunt:
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 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (3 votes)

GenreHumorous, Fantasy, Didactic,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Mathematical Physics,
MediumShort Stories, Available Free Online,

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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)