Who was the sci-fi writing mathematician who didn't cash his checks?
November 25, 2013 9:18 AM   Subscribe

In James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the author, Julie Phillips, mentions "a mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study who was so closeted about his pen name that he didn't even cash the checks for his stories" (Google books preview) that Fred Pohl had worked with previously, but Phillips doesn't provide additional details. Who is (or was) this mysterious writer?

It was around 1967 that that Phillips mentions Pohl's past work experience with the secretive mathematician, but Pohl was the editor for Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories from 1939 to 1943, then from the late 1950s until 1969 he served as editor of Galaxy Science Fiction and Worlds of if. That's a lot of time as an editor, so while I could dig through the lists of authors associated with those four magazines, I'm hoping that others know more about this mysterious mathematician and author than I do.
posted by filthy light thief to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest asking Phillips; her e-mail is jp@julie-phillips.com.
posted by languagehat at 10:38 AM on November 25, 2013

Response by poster: Good call. I'll do so later today, in case someone knows of a (possible) solution to my query.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:59 AM on November 25, 2013

Most of the time period is right for Eric Temple Bell/John Taine, but he was never at Princeton that I can find.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:22 AM on November 25, 2013

filthy_light_thief, if you do get an answer from Phillips then please post the answer here. I'm intrigued now.
posted by Hogshead at 11:29 AM on November 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Email sent, fingers crossed. I'll share any news I can.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:41 PM on November 25, 2013

Interesting question, do let us know if you find an answer.

The list of "Institute for Advanced Studies mathematicians" is a lot shorter than the list of '60s SF writers. Wiki has a list of ALL the faculty they've ever had at the IAS.

There have been only 34 mathematicians /mathematical physicists there; but 19 or so of these 34 were appointed after the time frame discussed.

That leaves only 15.

Just from looking at that list, Freeman Dyson seems like a leading possibility, as having been closely involved with some very science-fictional ideas.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:41 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Unfortunately, the author doesn't know. Pohl is no longer available to question, and Ms. Phillips said she was unsure where the correspondence for his magazines wound up.

AsYouKnow Bob, that's an intelligent way to approach the problem. Can one just ask Dyson "did you write sci-fi for any of Fred Pohl's magazines in the 1940s or 50s?"

Otherwise, I think I'll take some time and try to cross-reference authors from Polh's magazines with the time period and the material (more science-focused). From my quick searches, there is no direct link of Dyson and a pen-name used to write sci-fi.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:05 AM on November 26, 2013

The IAS also has a rotating cast of "members" who are there on short-term research appointments. Members actually make up the bulk of researchers at the IAS at any given time, so it's very plausible that this mathematician wasn't an actual faculty member but instead a visiting researcher. In any case, I want to know who this was now too!
posted by augustimagination at 7:51 AM on November 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, the Internet Science Fiction Database is not aware of any pseudonyms used by Freeman Dyson.

That certainly reduces the likelihood that he's the guy in question.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 3:57 PM on November 26, 2013

I'm holding out for von Neumann. Cough. But I was just thinking--it might be easier to find, if enough info from the magazines is available, someone of the period who is published often enough to have had enough checks to cash to be notable, but who didn't turn into one of the famous faces of the era. Like, Wikipedia is full of data on people and I can't imagine it would have gone far enough to include fake photos and a fake birth/death date? Or it's possible but less likely.
posted by Sequence at 5:49 PM on November 26, 2013

The best guess two friends of mine had that are both hard core science fiction fans (and collectors of said same):

'Well, my (and X's) initial impulse was to say mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who wrote sf as "John Taine". But neither of us know of a link to Pohl. And Bell was not related to the IAS. Just skimmed through Pohl's Way the Future Was, and there's no mention.'
posted by ladyriffraff at 7:38 PM on November 27, 2013

Chandler Davis is an SF-writing mathematician of the right vintage. Perhaps he'd know?
posted by wdenton at 7:40 AM on December 1, 2013

Response by poster: wdenton, thanks for the suggestion. I emailed him through his University of Toronto email account. If I don't hear anything back from that account, I'll look for other email addresses.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:21 AM on December 12, 2013

Do please update us on any developments. Here's another suggestion: You may want to contact Steve Batterson - he wrote a history of the founding of the IAS and has spent a lot of time in the archives of the IAS. I'm sure he'd be intrigued.
posted by tecg at 4:18 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I wrote to Steve, who didn't know, but asked if Chandler had told me to contact him. Chandler has since written to others, which spread the interest in the mystery. In the process, I learned about a couple neat sites: Jesse Sheidlower's Science Fiction Citations (posted to MetaFilter previously), and Alex Kasman's extensive mathematical fiction database (posted previously). Still no possible solutions to the riddle at hand.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:14 PM on February 2, 2014

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