Higher math may elude me, but that doesn’t mean I never think about it.
In fact, I’m always interested in discovering how writers and artists approach mathematical concepts.
Take, for instance, Jack London. He wrote a short dystopian novel in 1912 called The Scarlet Plague.
There is a memorable passage where an old man tries to explain “millions” to a group of boys who have no concept of numbers. As an introduction to mathematics, it puts Bertrand Russell to shame.
The Scarlet Plague takes place in California in the year 2063, sixty years after a global plague. The “red death” decimated the human population so thoroughly and quickly that modern technology, industry, and medicine disappeared, along with social and political order.
The few survivors and their progeny are entirely consumed by the need to prowl for food and safety. Human skills like reading, writing, counting, and courtesy have all but vanished.
The protagonist, Granser, is one of the few people still remaining from the beforetimes. A professor of English literature, he survived the pandemic and procreated, only to become irrelevant in the new world order.
The Math Scene
Granser sits hungry on a beach in post-apocalyptic San Francisco. An old man now, he is dependent on his grandsons for food and protection from the wolves and bears that now inhabit the beach.
The grandsons, (named Edwin, Hoo-Hoo, and Hare-Lip) are feral and mean boys. They call their grandfather names, tease him with food, and belittle him for his useless language and survival skills.
Granser, desperate to pass on knowledge that he knows will die with him, tries to tell a story about the beforetimes. The boys keep interrupting him to explain words they don’t know:
“‘There were very many people in the world in those days. San Francisco alone held four millions—’ ‘What is millions?’ Edwin interrupted. Granser looked at him kindly. ‘I know you cannot count beyond ten, so I will tell you. Hold up your two hands. On both of them you have altogether ten fingers and thumbs. Very well. I now take this grain of sand—you hold it, Hoo-Hoo.’ He dropped the grain of sand into the lad’s palm and went on. ‘Now that grain of sand stands for the ten fingers of Edwin. I add another grain. That’s ten more fingers. And I add another, and another, and another, until I have added as many grains as Edwin has fingers and thumbs. That makes what I call one hundred. ‘Remember that word—one hundred.”
In this way, Granser “strove to build up in their minds a crude conception of numbers.” He goes on to use pebbles for thousands, mussel-shells for hundred thousands, teeth from a skull for millions, and crab shells for billions.
He finally finishes, “There were four million people in San Francisco—four teeth.’”
“The boys’ eyes ranged along from the teeth and from hand to hand, down through the pebbles and sand-grains to Edwin’s fingers. And back again they ranged along the ascending series in the effort to grasp such inconceivable numbers.’ ‘That was a lot of folks, Granser,’ Edwin at last hazarded.”
I’m generally not a fan of philosophical dialogue in fiction. But this scene is so vivid, it makes my mind itch with ideas and questions:
What is the miracle that allowed the first human to grasp “a million”? How did the idea get passed along? It must have happened at a snail’s pace, over thousands of years.
Could we really lose the understanding in a single generation?
If a plague came around and knocked out all the engineers, physicists, and math teachers, how long would it take a world of poets to reconstruct arithmetic?
How did Jack London come by the idea for this scene?
I can picture him as a schoolboy, stuck in a classroom with a bad math teacher, daydreaming about being on the beach. Or maybe it’s the opposite; maybe his teacher was so good that London grasped math on a very deep level?
Or maybe London’s creative lesson plan was sparked on the long boring nights in the Klondike, with illiterate prospectors his only companions around the campfire.
“Was that all you did?”
After explaining “millions” to his grandsons, Granser realized he still had their attention. He pounces on the moment to tell them about his life before the plague, when he taught at the University of California:
“We taught young men and women how to think, just as I have taught you now, by sand and pebbles and shells, to know how many people lived in those days. There was very much to teach. The young men and women we taught were called students. We had large rooms in which we taught. I talked to them, forty or fifty at a time, just as I am talking to you now. I told them about the books other men had written before their time, and even, sometimes, in their time--” “Was that all you did?--just talk, talk, talk?” Hoo-Hoo demanded.
That, Hoo-Hoo, is the golden question for our times.
Author: Jack London
Publisher: Baur Books
Available on Kindle for $0.99