Riot at the Calc Exam and other Mathematically Bent Stories

The book is well described by the short paragraph above, but I will give some extra details to the potencial reader, much alike the trailer of a movie (but without spoiling it by disclosing its gags).

First of all, the book is definitely for mathematicians. No hope to grasp the real depth of the jokes if you are not one. I trust this opinion will not affect sells: most likely a non-mathematician who browses through a copy in a bookshop will not have read this review. To compensate anyway, I can say a couple of things to convince any mathematician to rush for a copy. Of course the main attraction is that the reading is really amusing, and it just takes two or three cold beers in one's favourite research armchair.

Now, the thing is why this is so funny for mathematicians and not for normal human beings. Well, because in fact, we mathematicians are a lot apart. To start with, how many people take the most palatable pleasure in exhausting their brains to understand some abstruse three lines assertion just to be able to proceed to the following paragraph (of course not easier), with the hope of reaching a promised QED flag? And, how many would accept that flag celebrates the conquest of a top-most form of intelectual beauty that pays by itself the effort? I have tried to explain this to some close non-mathematicians, without success, despite (or causing) their concern. To understand my point here better, you can read either Into thin air, or A Killer Theorem. And to realise how society can regard us, read A Deprogramer’s Tale.

But coming to more academic matters, most (mathematicians) surely remember A Note on Piffles by A.B. Smith, and the subsequent controversy between the English and the American Piffle Theory Schools, or in a more metamathematical trend the claims by C. Hopper in On some ∏-hedral surfaces in quasi-quasi space. Well then, the reader will find a must of the kind in several stories of this book: in a word, locally coherent superstrings of hypercosentences in global statements compactly supported on excellent existence proofs of completely negligible imaginary objects without multiplication of hypotheses. To judge, read Magnum, P.I., or A proof of God. But if you prefer a more subtle riddle, read Class Reunion, or Pythagoras’s Darkest Hour. All good laugh.

On the other hand, most of us, we also teach. In recent times this is taking an increasingly too high toll (to be honest, sometimes our “customers” also suffer a bit). In this matter, many of us will find exhilarating, but surely menacing, the story Trial and Error (script). In a different vein, Riot at the Calc Exam, which gives the book its title, twists dangerously the professor/students relationship.

As far, I have given obscure hints for several stories, but those same stories and all the others touch upon other crucial topics: being a P.I., a worldwide worry (in the scientific world, I mean), math anxiety (and not only for students), authorship (of any paper, even by others), productivity (of proofs of theorems, preferably correct), acceptance in first rate journals (of whatever rate you produce), getting a position (better paper, pen and iMac included), defending your research field (from the tough contenders promoting their other fields). There is even place for some romanticism (read Vital Sines).

Summing up, the reading is murderously funny, but includes some subtleties to think them over. In addition, the parody of different writting styles for different settings is a bonus (read This Theorem is Big). As was already mentioned, the book also has a Notes chapter that could be called Solution to Selected References, where guesses provoked by the reading can be checked (without cheating: afterwards!)

Finally I would propose a socio/psycho-logical experiment. Although (in my opinion) a non-mathematician is not the suitable reader for this, a mathematician can offer the book as a present to one who is not, some close friend or relative. Someone who can be persuaded first to read some stories and second to be lectured on where the fun hides. The records should be worthwhile... but be careful to lead the experiment not much afar.

Reviewer: 
Jesús M. Ruiz
Book details

This book collects 33 short stories properly labelled as mathematically bent humour, with a healthy touch of self criticism and plenty of clins d’oeil to the history of mathematics, from Pythagoras to Wiles. As a complement, many of the stories have a companion explanatory section at the end, in a Notes chapter.

Author:  Publisher: 
Published: 
2009
ISBN: 
ISBN 978-0-8218-4817-3
Categorisation