Mathematicians are the new vampires

I was waiting in line at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of The Imitation Game. I was accompanied by two of my mathematical friends and we eagerly awaited the film. It was a hot, sunny day, and there was a growing crowd on either side of King street. Several large SUVs were pulling up in front of the Princess of Wales theater, delivering the director and actors from the movie. Keira Knightly emerged to a roar from the fans. The crowd went wild when Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing, emerged. Posters were signed and selfies were taken.  I felt like I was at the premiere of a movie like Twilight or the Hunger Games. All of this for a movie about Turing, the father of Computer Science and one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the twentieth century. I imagined few of the screaming fans had ever heard of Turing before the film.

When did playing a mathematician become so popular?  The Imitation Game went on to receive numerous accolades, and even won the coveted People’s Choice award, announced at the end of the festival. Cumberbatch and the movie when on to multiple nominations and awards at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and of course, the Oscars.

A similar event occurred with the premiere of The Theory of Everything, which is about the life of Steven Hawking. Eddie Redymane, who later won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role, drove fans into frenzy with his outgoing personality, spending oodles of time shaking hands and taking selfies. He looked luminous in a stunning green Burberry suit. While Hawking is a physicist, his work is highly theoretical, and he uses high powered mathematics.  Once again, I felt like Mathematics was center stage at the festival. There was a prolonged standing ovation at the end of the film, and Redymane seemed as moved as the audience was for his powerful portrayal of the complex life of Hawking.

Asa Butterfield, fresh from his role in Ender’s Game as a boy genius military strategist, wowed at TIFF in the premiere of the film X+Y, which is the story of a teenage mathematics prodigy who has his first taste of romance while at a Mathematics Olympiad in Beijing.  While the movie received less buzz than The Imitation Game or Theory of Everything, its beautiful understated message and performances charmed audiences nevertheless.

As I stood in the torrential rain outside Ryerson Theatre waiting to see X+Y, I was moved that all of the hundreds of people huddled under umbrellas were there to watch a movie about what I do; essentially, what I do as my profession. There are countless movies about lawyers, doctors, police, spies, or firefighters, but rarely do we get to see mathematicians portrayed as real, three dimensional characters. Mathematical characters with personal lives, with loves, loss, and flaws. Even more rarely do a swath of such movies emerge all at once. It felt like a moment of true cultural convergence.

Why did this happen? This sudden focus on mathematicians in popular film?  It makes me feel like Mathematicians are the new vampires, perhaps the latest fad of Hollywood.

Movies like Proof or a Beautiful Mind also featured Mathematicians as prominent characters, but both movies revolved around the theme of mental illness. While mental illness is an issue in our profession as in any other, there is an unfortunate stereotype in our culture of Mathematicians as pervasively mentally ill.   After all, the great graph theorist Fan Chung Graham said to me once “We are all a little off.”  I suppose we must be so to stare at empty pages and blackboards for hours, dreaming up new complex mathematical theories from nothing. Good Will Hunting also featured Mathematicians front and center, though Matt Damon’s character did not seem to care much about his profound mathematical gift or its implications.

I am enjoying the new found fame of mathematical folk in popular film. I would love to see epic, big budget movies about such heroic figures as Emmy Noether (played by Melissa McCarthy?), Paul Erdos (Johnny Depp?), Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel?), or a biopic on RIemann, Godel, Euler or Gauss.  While there will always be a central place for the action hero/heroine in Hollywood and beyond, there is also ample space for engaging, moving, and inspiring stories about the mathematical thinkers of this world who toil silently in offices, labs, attics, and coffee shops.

So Hollywood, here is your challenge: Mathematicians are as hot as vampires now. It is time to make more movies about us. And we do not bite!

-Anthony Bonato

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