Barr's Problem

Julian Hawthorne | published Oct, 1892

added May 22, 2024
cover Image
First Date of Publication
Oct, 1892
Original Source
Two Tales Magazine
Original Source Type
Magazine - General
Short Story
Original Language
Kasman Review
Not in ISFDB
Summary: The tale of a young man winning the hand of a mathematician’s daughter, despite getting momentarily tricked out of his love by the professor.

Story Tag Line: Barr was silent for a while, and then said, “There maybe a Fourth Dimension, Professor; but I should love Susan just the same if there were no dimensions at all.”


  • Vijay Fafat
    Published on

    A cute, tall-tale about one Professor Brooks - presumably one of mathematics - his past student, Barr, and his 19-year old niece, Susan Wayne. The two youngsters are in love with each other but the Professor had not yet consented to their union because, as he tells Barr:

    “You are not, at present, worth a decent girl’s acceptance. [,,,] You are a babe in swaddling clothes. You have never once kicked out a leg on your own independent account. Susan agreed to tolerate you on the theory that you might turn out to he, hereafter, less of a prig and a poke than you appear now. I have yet to be satisfied that she has any grounds for her expectation. I even question your love for her. It is only her pretty outside that has attracted you.”

    Barr, of course, remonstrates vehemently, professing a soulful love for Susan. So the professor decides to put him to a test. He first asks Barr if he believes in the fourth dimension of space, an idea which Barr dismisses as “a mathematical lark which nobody believes”. So the professor shows him a small coil of rope with a knot in it and claims that a woman had taken a perfectly normal, unknotted loop of rope and given it a shake in the fourth dimension to end up with a knot, something impossible to do in three dimensions without cutting the rope. Barr does not know what to believe but tells the professor that while his disbelief in the fourth dimension might be wavering following the professor’s claim, his love for Susan remained just as strong, not subject to any wavering. So then the professor goes through an elaborate theory of dimensional scales, invariance of measurement ratios if everything were to change size by the same factor, how a movement in the fourth dimension would shield one from any global change of scale in 3 dimensions and the like. Barr (and likely, the reader) has no idea where all this mathematical talk is leading but plays along. Finally, the Professor demonstrates the reality of the fourth dimension by making his niece disappear in the higher spatial dimension, from where she emerges to be just 6 inches tall… Magic realism at its best.

    Barr loses his nerve and hems and haws about how he loves the miniature Susan but cannot really marry her and so on. Susan also feels the Professor has played an unfair trick on Barr. So then the Professors unravels his magic. It was all an exercise in hypnotism to test their love and to fortify it against unexpected occurrences in the future. The fourth dimension, if one exists, was not to be tested that evening. Geometry was the magician’s head-fake in this instance.

    A bit hurried in the end but still worth a good smile.