9

When I was in my teens, so it must have been in the seventies, I read a science fiction story (I do not remember whether it was a novel or a short story) that contained a displayed mathematical formula. I remember it as looking like an infinite sum of a series of fractions, but when I showed it to my math teacher he pointed out that that did not make sense (the result of the formula interpreted as a series could not have been rational? or maybe it would be divergent? something like that), and that it was supposedly an infinite continued fraction that the publisher did not typeset properly.

I think it might have been a formula by Ramanujan, but I do not remember whether the story named Ramanujan explicitly, or that we recognised the formula as something like that ourselves (I would guess the latter).

  • I thought of Convergent Series by Niven, but that has no formula in it. – o.m. Apr 27 at 15:59
  • Any chance you can speak to your maths teacher to see if they remember it? – Valorum Apr 27 at 16:03
  • Valorum, this was roughly 40 years ago, I would be very surprised if he remembers this at all. But even if he remembers the conversation, I'm sure he won't remember what book this was from. – Freek Wiedijk Apr 27 at 16:59
  • I probably just copied the formula, and even didn't bring the book... – Freek Wiedijk Apr 27 at 17:17
  • 1
    Martin, I don't think this was about pi, the result of the formula (I think) was more complicated than that. – Freek Wiedijk Apr 27 at 20:49
9

Probably "Gomez", a 1954 novelette by C. M. Kornbluth, available at Project Gutenberg Canada. The image below is from New Worlds Science Fiction #32, February 1955 (available at the Internet Archive):

*New Worlds Science Fiction* #32, February 1955, p. 7


Description by contributor Rowen Bell at Alex Kasman's Mathematical Fiction site:

this story is about a physics prodigy, but a mathematical equation appears in it -- the first time I read story the equation didn't make any sense to me, but eventually I realized that it was a continued fraction -- only much later did I discover something that isn't mentioned in the story: this equation was one of the results that Ramanjuan cited in his initial letters to Hardy!


Ramanujan is mentioned explicitly in the story:

"It's happened before, admiral," said Dr. Mines. "I don't suppose you ever heard of Ramanujan?"

"No."

Srinivasa Ramanujan?"

"No!"

"Oh. Well, Ramanujan was born in 1887 and died in 1920. He was a poor Hindu who failed twice in college and then settled down as a government clerk. With only a single obsolete textbook to go on he made himself a very good mathematician. In 1913 he sent some of his original work to a Cambridge professor. He was immediately recognized and called to England where he was accepted as a first-rank man, became a member of the Royal Society, a Fellow of Trinity and so forth."

  • I figured it was "Gomez" from the question title alone. However, the equation typesetting in that Project Gutenberg Canada version is terrible. The Best of C. M. Kornbluth is probably the only place to find it typeset correctly. – Buzz Apr 28 at 3:44
  • Great answer! This Kornbluth one wasn't on my radar. – Organic Marble Apr 28 at 14:06
  • Yes! That's undoubtedly the one. – Freek Wiedijk May 1 at 6:58
  • I am amazed that there is not a Dutch translation of this story. I thought that at the time I didn't read SF in English yet. But according to isfdb it hasn't been translated into Dutch. – Freek Wiedijk May 1 at 6:59
  • (Sorry for the delayed response. I was abroad and not very well connected, and also very busy.) – Freek Wiedijk May 1 at 7:00

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