I read this short story at least 30 years ago. I believe it was in a book of short stories. I'm not sure if the other stories were by the same author.

It was about an astronomer trying to create a new theory that will make him famous. In addition to his efforts in the field of astronomy, he tinkers with irradiating mushrooms to preserve them. He ends up accidentally creating a new strain of botulism that wipes out most of the population because it is much hardier and can be transmitted by air. He is the first one to die from this new strain, but far from the last. The plague is named after him.

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    He ends up accidentally creating a new strain of botulism that wipes out most of the population. I hate when that happens! :D
    – Daft
    Jan 27, 2015 at 17:22
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    This is one of my favourite stories. I read it some 20 years ago and remember it very vividly. (“Shaffery looked a little bit like Einstein. He encouraged the resemblance, especially in the hair, until his hair began to run out. Since Einstein loved sailing, he kept a sixteen-foot trimaran …”) Some of the bits that I thought were science-fiction, such as the dysfunction in (parts of) academia, I learned later were fact :-) Mar 28, 2017 at 7:42

1 Answer 1


Shaffery Among the Immortals, by Frederik Pohl

From what I remember

In fact, Shaffery was not an inventor but mainly an astronomer; he lost most of his prestige when announcing some unexpected phenomena (some planet shifting to red, or blue) which finally does not happen. He ends up in an astronomical observatory that he suspects is used by the Mafia to launder money, and when he dies he is in the process of being sacked for disagreeing with the investor about which would name discoveries made by the observatory. The x-ray idea was just a lateral idea, which did not seem important at the beginning.

I read it a long time ago, and I still remembered in which collection. Since citations needed, here is an extract I found over the web:

A funny yarn about one Jeremy Shaffery, an astronomer who idolizes Einstein and his methods and who wants to achieve immortal fame by doing something just as famous. The problem is that he is not built for this (“The Einstein method, which he had studied assiduously over many years, was to make a pretty theory and then see if, by any chance, observations of events in the real world seemed to confirm it. Shaffery greatly approved of that method. It just didn’t seem to work out for him.”). As his wife says with a bite:

(quoted from Shaffery Among the Immortals) “Your trouble, Jeremy, is you’re a horse’s ass.” But he knew that wasn’t it. Who was to say Isaac Newton wasn’t a horse’s ass, too, if you looked closely enough at his freaky theology and his nervous breakdowns? And look where he got.”

In a desperate moment, he starts trying to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem (“It was one of those famous mathematical problems that grad students played at for a month or two and amateurs assaulted in vain all their lives. It looked easy enough to deal with.”). A description of the problem with analogy to Pythagoras theorem and the reference to Fermat’s margin note follows. In fact, Shaffery has half a mind to just write a similar margin note but discards the idea for a few reasons (people would not take it seriously, it would be posthumous, etc). He tries out some desperate methods before other events take over. In the end, he achieves non-mathematical fame in an unwitting pandemic he causes which destroys most of the world’s population…

Here is a list of books where it has been published

  • That sure sounds like the story. I'm getting a book with that story in it to read it and make sure, but I think it is the story I described. Jan 27, 2015 at 21:04
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    I got a book with that story and read it. It definitely is the story I was asking about. It is funny that there have been about 10 short stories I read 30 or more years that have stuck with me, even though I couldn't remember the title, half of them have turned out to be written by Pohl. Feb 5, 2015 at 16:43

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