In some stories, the value of a universal constant is different than it is reality. For example, in Going Postal:

'Something like that, sir, probably, something like that,' said Groat. 'Three and a bit, that's the ticket. Only Bloody Stupid Johnson said that was untidy, so he designed a wheel where the pie was exactly three. And that's it, in there.'

What is the first story to feature this concept?

A universal constant here can be either physical (Planck's constant, the speed of light), or mathematical (pi, the Golden Ratio). What's important is that the story feature a situation or universe in which the universal constant is, well, not

  • Certainly not the first, but this exact topic is essentially the crux of the fiction segments of The Science of Discworld (also by Pratchett). However, it is the wizards of the disc creating our own universe. Funnily enough, that book explicitly references both Flatland from @user14111's answer, and addresses the question of "what if the universal constants weren't". May 3, 2016 at 5:57

5 Answers 5


Perhaps George Gamow's Mr. Tompkins books:

Mr Tompkins is the titular character in a series of four non-fiction books by the physicist George Gamow. The books are structured as a series of dreams in which Mr Tompkins enters alternate worlds where the physical constants have radically different values from those they have in the real world. Gamow aims to use these alterations to explain modern scientific theories.

In two of the stories the first book, Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, the speed of light is reduced to 10 miles per hour. Other stories in the volume involve changes to the gravitational constant and Planck's constant. The book was published in 1940.

  • 'four non-fiction books'? May 2, 2016 at 16:51
  • 1
    Yeah, they're not non-fiction. What must have been meant was that they were primarily educational books. And there are lots more changes to the fundamental constants than just reducing the speed of light. In the last story of Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, all the fundamental constants are doing square dances.
    – Buzz
    May 2, 2016 at 16:54
  • Also, while this was the first example I thought of when I read the question, it may not technically count. All the changes to the fundamental constants in Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland occur in the title character's dreams, not in (in-story) reality.
    – Buzz
    May 2, 2016 at 16:59
  • @Buzz: that may be true, but the books are so good that this answer deserves to be upvoted.
    – Francesco
    May 2, 2016 at 17:32
  • Indeed, I upvoted it myself.
    – Buzz
    May 2, 2016 at 17:36

The dimensionality of space is a physical constant whose value in our universe is three. Worlds where this constant has other values (particularly two) are explored in the 1884 novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by "A. Square" = Edwin Abbott Abbott, which is available at Project Gutenberg. From the Wikipedia plot summary:

The story describes a two-dimensional world occupied by geometric figures, whereof women are simple line-segments, while men are polygons with various numbers of sides. The narrator is a square named A Square, a member of the caste of gentlemen and professionals, who guides the readers through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The first half of the story goes through the practicalities of existing in a two-dimensional universe as well as a history leading up to the year 1999 on the eve of the 3rd Millennium.

On New Year's Eve, the Square dreams about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland) inhabited by "lustrous points", in which he attempts to convince the realm's monarch of a second dimension; but is unable to do so. In the end, the monarch of Lineland tries to kill A Square rather than tolerate his nonsense any further.

Following this vision, he is himself visited by a three-dimensional sphere named A Sphere, which he cannot comprehend until he sees Spaceland (a tridimensional world) for himself. This Sphere visits Flatland at the turn of each millennium to introduce a new apostle to the idea of a third dimension in the hopes of eventually educating the population of Flatland. From the safety of Spaceland, they are able to observe the leaders of Flatland secretly acknowledging the existence of the sphere and prescribing the silencing of anyone found preaching the truth of Spaceland and the third dimension. After this proclamation is made, many witnesses are massacred or imprisoned (according to caste), including A Square's brother, B.

After the Square's mind is opened to new dimensions, he tries to convince the Sphere of the theoretical possibility of the existence of a fourth (and fifth, and sixth ...) spatial dimension; but the Sphere returns his student to Flatland in disgrace.

[. . .]

  • Good call! Loved that story, but I would never have thought of it for this question. May 3, 2016 at 7:23

In "Warren Peace" by Bob Shaw, the main character enters a parrallel universe where the speed of sound is constant, but the speed of light isn't. This was published in 1993. Perhaps not the first, but certainly predating "Going Postal" (2010).

  • Nice. I'm out upvotes for now though.
    – Adamant
    May 2, 2016 at 15:15

Off the top of my head there's:

  1. The Final Nexus a Star Trek novel from 1988 which involves multiple universes with differing physical constants. The character who first realizes that they are dealing with multiple universes with different constants even credits her reading of old science fiction novels for being able to recognize the cause of the problems they were having.
  2. The Gods Themselves by Asimov from 1972 in which two universes with differing constants make up the bulk of the story, and at the end it turns out that there are many universes with as many variations in physical constants as you can imagine.

I'm sure there are more, but those are the two that pop into mind.

  • +1, The Gods Themselves was the one I thought of. There might be an earlier one if we count Mr Tompkins, but this one definitely counts.
    – DCShannon
    May 2, 2016 at 21:07

Getaway from Getawehi, a part of the 'Unorthodox Engineers' series by Colin Kapp has the engineers land on a planet where the multiplicative identify (i.e. the number 'one') has a different value. Published in 1969.

  • Throwaway line from Clifford D. Simak's Cosmic Engineers: "Best mathematical mine in the whole system. Worked out equations no one could understand. Went screwy when he proved that there actually were times when one and one didn't quite make two. Proved it, you understand. Not just theory or mathematical mumbo-jumbo."
    – user14111
    May 2, 2016 at 21:34

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