Mathematics in the movies

Popcorn and math

As the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is about to open in Toronto, I think back on the amazing movies I’ve seen there with mathematical themes. Mathematicians aren’t exactly a movie producer’s dream protagonist. We don’t blow things up, have superpowers, or save the world from invading aliens (or do we?). Movies rarely, if ever, accurately portray what mathematicians do, let alone do justice to their personal lives.

Dev Patel at TIFF 2015 for world premier of The Man Who Knew Infinity.

That’s changing, fortunately, with audiences developing diverse and eclectic tastes in their consumption of entertainment. Netflix and other media have exposed viewers to a vast array of films they might never ordinarily see in their local cinema. Another reason why mathematicians are figuring in mainstream movies is that a number of such films that did very well recently on the awards circuit.

Alan Turing and The Imitation Game

Alan Turing was decades ahead of his time, and is considered by many as one of the progenitors of modern computing. Turing machines (as they are called today in computability theory) are abstract representations of digital computers, first introduced by Turing in his 1948 essay “Intelligent Machinery”.  A Turing machine is a read/write device, writing or erasing 1’s or 0’s on an infinite tape. This simple notion underlies every practical modern computer, no matter how complex.

A Turing machine.

The 2015 film The Imitation Game gave wonderful synthesis of Alan Turing’s personal struggles and his outward heroism. He and his team at Bletchley Park had a major impact on the outcome of World War II with their cracking of the German Enigma code.

Alan Turing (1912-1954) played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

In the movie, Turing christens the newly invented computer “Christopher”, after a boy he had romantic feelings for from his childhood. The real life Christopher died of tuberculosis, and Turing learns this from his headmaster in a heart-wrenching scene.  As an adult, we see Turing as arrogant and unapproachable. One of his discoveries and must-haves on his team was Joan Clarke, who is one of the few able to reach Turing. Together they crack Enigma, only to realize they cannot widely reveal their discovery, for fear of the Germans getting wind and changing their codes. After the war, Turing committed suicide. He had endured the hardship of chemical castration, a sentence imposed on the British government for his homosexuality.

I saw the Imitation Game world premiere at the TIFF in September 2014. After the movie, the cast and director were on stage to answer questions. I was highly impressed by the movie, especially by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing. In the discussion on stage after the film, Cumberbatch spoke intelligently about Turing’s work on morphogenesis (a topic in mathematical and computational biology that is his most cited paper). He had done his homework! See below for a short video explaining Turing’s work in this area.

And then there is the small matter of the reception of the film. The movie went on to make over 233 million US dollars worldwide, despite its tiny 14 million dollar budget. The movie was highly awarded, receiving The Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Hawking and Ramanujan

Two other recent biopics worthy of attention (that both opened at TIFF, and yes, I was at their premiers!) are The Man Who Knew Infinity and The Theory of Everything, about Srivinasa Ramanujan and Stephen Hawking, respectively. You can read my review of Infinity, so I won’t go into detail about that movie here.

Stephen Hawking is a physicist, of course, although his work is highly mathematical. The Theory of Everything lovingly weaves the story of his life, scholarly work, and relationships, all with the backdrop of Hawking’s advancing ALS. Eddie Redmayne is triumphant as Hawking, and deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role.

Eddy Redymane won Best Actor at the Oscars for his portrayal of Hawking.

The movie brought in 123 million US dollars, with a budget of 15 million. Redymane won the Oscar for Best Actor. See a theme here?

I love the new Jaguar commercial featuring Hawking. It is fair to say that he can do whatever he wants at this point in his life and career.

Mathematicians are the new vampires

Looking to watch something beyond vampires, zombies, or fifty shades of grey? Try mathematicians!

As is becoming a regular call to arms here, I challenge Hollywood to make a commercial hit out of a movie about Paul Erdős or Emmy Noether. Or make a gripping biopic about such living geniuses as Maryam Mirzakhani (the first woman to win the Fields medal) or Grigori Perelman (the reclusive mathematician who settled the Poincaré conjecture, and turned down his Fields medal).

Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University, who works on the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.

I’m really looking forward to Hidden Figures, about the African-american women mathematicians and their work on the early space program at NASA. The movie is based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly of the same name, and it focuses on the STEM pioneers Katherine Johnson (who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015), Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

Looking for other ideas for films on mathematics? Contact me for more.

Anthony Bonato

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