Mathematics and Science Fiction

The Fire in the Equations

Dartmouth College Course 18
Winter 1999 (12 Hour)
Professors: Davies and Trout

Course Description | Assignments | Syllabus | Course Readings | Group Project Webpages | Related Links

Rudy Rucker's Lecture on Sci-Fi and the Fourth Dimension!

Course Description: We shall challenge the widely-held assumption that readers and writers of science fiction feel more at home with physical than with mathematical sciences. In fact, a substantial body of novels and stories depends on mathematical ideas. Is the portrayal of mathematics in science fiction accurate or confused, legitimate speculation or mere technobabble? Is mathematics simply a way of mystifying, even intimidating readers or can understanding the underlying mathematics truly contribute to the total experience of reading a story? This course will present both the mathematics and the literary concepts necessary for an informed reading of the chosen texts. Although these texts will mostly be works of fiction, we shall also discuss some critical theory, with reference to current debates about post-modern consciousness, cultural politics, narrative structure, and the nature of artistic representation. Among the authors of novels or short stories, Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Egan, Robert Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Larry Niven, Rudy Rucker, and Kim Stanley Robinson; among writers on the theory and practice of science fiction, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Darko Suvin. Course requirements will include regular problem sets, a critical essay, a collaborative web page, and one or more drafts of a story. Professors Davies and Trout

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These are intended to expose you to diverse ways of approaching the topics involved. There will be four assignments during the course and a take-home final; each of which will count for about one-fifth of the grade. Your level and quality of involvement in class discussions will also be considered in the grading process. There is no need to feel intimidated by the topics; not everyone in the class, including your professors, are experts on every topic considered.

1. Weekly problem sets.
2. A critical comparison of two short stories (4-5pp): due February 3.
3 The whole or a significant part of a short story using a mathematical idea (6-7pp): due March 1.
4. A take-home final: due March 15.
5. Besides the individually assessed work, you will collaborate in small groups on creating a web page that illustrates a mathematical or literary topic. This requirement will be graded on a pass/fail basis.

Problem sets: 20%
Critical comparison: 25%
Short story: 25%
Take-home final: 30%

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Week One: Counting and Numbers

January 4: Introductions
January 6, 8:

SF: Lasswitz, 'The Universal Library'(Fantasia); Ley, 'Postscript to the Universal Library' (Fantasia); Stewart, 'The Kissing Number' (Reader); Clarke, 'The Nine Billion Names' (Reader); Harper, 'Mathematical Themes in Science Fiction' (Reader)
Math: Berlinghoff and Grant, 'Counting Processes' (Reader)

Related Websites: The Universal Library at CMU, The Kissing Number, Spherical Cap, Sphere Packing, Nine Billion Names 0f God

Week Two: Number Theory

January 11, 13, 15:

SF: Kagan, 'Fermat's Best Theorem' (Reader); Porges, 'The Devil and Simon Flagg' (Fantasia); Keeler, 'John Jones' Dollar' (Fantasia); Le Guin, 'Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown' (Reader)
Math: Singh, 'Fermat's Last Stand' (Reader)

Week Three: Probability and Statistics

January 19, 20, 22:

SF: Hofstadter, 'The Tale of Happiton' (Mathenauts); Maloney, 'Inflexible Logic' (Fantasia); Donnelly, 'Tracking the Random Variable' (Reader); Egan, 'Blood Sisters' (Axiomatic); Russ, 'Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction' (Reader)
Math: Berlinghoff and Grant, 'What is Probability?' (Reader)

Week Four: Equations and Chaos

January 25, 27, 29:

SF: Dnieprov, 'The Maxwell Equations' (Mathenauts); Egan, 'Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies' (Axiomatic); Grant, 'Drode's Equations' (Reader); Godwin, 'The Cold Equations' (Reader); Le Guin, 'Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (Reader)
Math: Miller, 'Chaos and Fractal Geometry' (Reader); Dewdney, 'Probing the Strange Attractions of Chaos' (Reader)

Week Five: The Fourth Dimension

February 1, 3, 5:

SF: Abbott, Flatland; Heinlein, 'And He Built a Crooked House' (Fantasia); Breuer, 'The Captured Cross-Section' (Fantasia); Bear, 'Tangents' (Mathenauts); Rucker, 'Message Found in a Copy of Flatland' (Mathenauts)
Math: Chapter One of Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension.

Week Six: Projective Geometry

February 8, 9, 10:

SF: Robinson, 'The Blind Geometer' (Reader); Delany, 'About 5, 750 Words' (Reader)
Math: Miller, 'Non-Euclidean Geometry, Topology and Networks' (Reader); Chapter Two of Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension.

Week Seven: Infinity

February 15, 17, 19:

SF: Niven, 'Convergent Series' (Mathenauts); Blish, 'FYI' (Reader); Egan, 'The Infinite Assassin' (Axiomatic); Suvin, 'Estrangement and Cognition' (Reader)
Math: Moore, 'A Brief History of Infinity' (Reader); Rucker, 'One: Infinity' (Reader); Vilenkin, 'In Search of Infinity' (Reserve: Math and English Libraries)

Week Eight: Logic and Proof

February 22, 24, 26:

SF: Zebrowski (Mathenauts); Orr, 'Euclid Alone' (Mathenauts); Chiang, 'Division by Zero' (Reader); Langford, 'The Lions in the Desert' (Reader)
Math: Kleiner, 'Proof: A Many Splendored Thing' (Reader)

Week Nine: Math and the Future

March 1, 3, 5:

SF: Le Guin, 'The Masters' (Reader); Rucker, 'A New Golden Age' (Mathenauts); Asimov, 'The Feeling of Power' (Mathenauts)
Math: Horgan, 'The Death of Proof' (Reader)

Week Ten:

March 8: Last class

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Course Readings:

I. Science Fiction Stories

Abbott, Edwin A. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. 1884
Asimov, Isaac: '1 to 199' and 'A Feeling of Power'
Blish, James: 'FYI'
Clarke, Arthur C.: 'The Nine Billion Names of God'
Dewdney, A. K. The Planiverse. London: Pan Books, 1984 (optional)
Donnely, Marcos: 'Tracking the Random Variable'
Dnieprov, Anatoly: 'The Maxwell Equations'
Bear, Greg: 'Tangents'
Breuer, Miles: 'The Captured Cross-Section'
Egan, Greg: 'Blood Sisters', 'Into Darkness', and 'The Infinite Assassin'
Egan, Greg: 'Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies'
Godwin, Tom: 'The Cold Equations'
Grant, Richard: 'Drode's Equations'
Heinlein, Robert: '-And He Built A Crooked House'
Hofstadter, Douglas: 'The Tale of Happiton'
Kagan, Janet: 'Fermat's Best Theorem'
Keeler, Harry: 'John Jones's Dollar'
Langford, David: 'The Lions in the Desert'
Lasswitz, Kurd: 'The Universal Library'
Le Guin, Ursula: 'The Masters' and selections from The Left Hand of Darkness
Ley, Willy: 'Postscript to 'The Universal Library' '
Maloney, Russell: 'Inflexible Logic'
Niven, Larry: 'Convergent Series'
Orr, William: 'Euclid Alone'
Porges, Simon: 'The Devil and Simon Flagg'
Robinson, Kim Stanley: 'The Blind Geometer'
Rucker, Rudy: 'A New Golden Age'
Rucker, Rudy: 'Message found in a copy of Flatland'
Rucker, Rudy: White Light (optional)
Stewart, Ian: 'The Kissing Number'
Vilenkin, N. Ya: 'In Search of Infinity'
Zebrowski, George: 'Goedel's Doom'

II. Mathematics

Berlinghoff and Grant, 'Counting Processes'
Berlinghoff and Grant , 'What is Probability'
Berlinghoff and Grant , '4-Space in Fiction and in Art'
Dewdney, A. K. ,'Probing the Strange Attractions of Chaos'
Goldstein, Daniel, 'Do We Do Mathematics With Our Visual Brain?'
Horgan, John, 'The Death of Proof'
Kleiner, Israel, 'Proof: A Many-Splendored Thing'
Miller, Charles et al, 'Non-Euclidean Geometry, Topology, and Networks'
Miller, Charles et al, 'Chaos and Fractal Geometry'
Moore, A. W., 'A Brief History of Infinity'
Rucker, Rudy, 'One: Infinity', from Infinity and the Mind. Boston: Bantam, 1982
Rucker, Rudy: The 4th Dimension: Toward a Geometry of Higher Reality. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1984 (*)
Singh, Simon, 'Fermat's Last Stand'

III. Science Fiction: Theory and Practice

Delany, Samuel R. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. New York: Berkeley, 1977
'About 5,750 Words,' 21-36
Harper, Lila, 'Mathematical Themes in Science Fiction,' Extrapolation, Vol. 27, No. 3, 245 269.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night. New York: Perigee, 1979
'Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,' 101-119
'Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness,' 155-9
Russ, Joanna. To Write Like A Woman. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995
'Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction,'3-14
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979
'Estrangement and Cognition,' 3-15

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Group Project Webpages:

Chaos Theory
Chaos Theory 2
For More Information
Game Theory
The Mandelbrot Set
Peano Arithmetic
Your Own Math Adventure

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Related Links
MATC Dartmouth College
Warp Drive When?
Sci-Fi Resource Guide Fiction with a Mathematical Content
Greg Egan's Mathematical Stories

Rudy Rucker's Webpage

Back To: Dartmouth Mathematics Department

Webpage designed by: Sarah Dahl
@copyright 1998, Davies and Trout
Last Update: April 27, 1999