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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Movie Mathematicians

On Tuesday IMDB ran a poll on "Who is your favorite movie mathematician?" Let's consider the nominees, all white, male and American.

Dustin Hoffman has two roles, his revenge-seeking astrophysicist in Straw Dogs (which I haven't seen) and as Rain Man, an autistic savant. Shame on IMDB for confusing savants and mathematicians.

Russell Crowe gives an excellent portrayal of the hallucinating game theorist John Nash and Anthony Hopkins has a decent role as an older mathematician with dementia. But both these movies add to a stereotype connection between mathematicians and mental disease. Jake Gyllenhaal's math student in Proof (not nominated) better portrayed the excitement a mathematician feels.

Sean Penn gave a fine acting performance in 21 Grams, but the mathematics plays no role in the story or in how Penn portrays his character.

Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park plays the kind of scientist that always annoys me: lots of neat parables with no mathematical meat behind them.

I have heard nothing but contempt from my colleagues by the way Matt Damon's janitor turned mathematician is presented, and thus it wins the poll. At least Good Will Hunting does a nice job promoting the Fields Medal.

I did see Pi years ago but the movie was a confusing blur to me.

Which leaves my favorite, the TV crime-fighting mathematician Charlie Eppes portrayed by David Krumholtz. Reportedly Krumholtz hung out with Caltech mathematicians to prepare for the role and he gets it pretty close to right, a slightly shy, very smart and otherwise normal person who just has lots of fun talking and doing math.

22 comments:

  1. What's wrong with the way mathematicians are portrayed in Good Will Hunting? I mean, it's not completely realistic but it's not offensive either...and I thought the interplay between the professor, his "star" grad student (Damon), and his "not-as-good" grad student was quite interesting and plausible.

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  2. anonymous: To me, the biggest inaccuracy in Good Will Hunting's portrayal is that nothing is ever challenging for him, or even interesting: he just immediately solves any problem that's put to him. (Including even the Riemann Hypothesis and P vs. NP? The movie, of course, never asks that question.) He shows up his elders over and over and over, and is never once shown up by them. That doesn't break any mathematical rule, but it certainly breaks a rule of good fiction.

    Imagine watching a superhero movie where the hero can instantly defeat any villain just by wishing it, and you'll get an idea of how mathematicians reacted to Good Will Hunting.

    Of course, Will is a slightly more complex character in his interactions with his buddies and women -- but as a mathematician, he's as one-dimensional as it's possible to be.

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  3. I wholeheartedly agree that the most annoying portrayal of a mathematician should go to Ian Malcolm/Jeff Goldblum. I never liked that character and hoped throughout the movie that a velociraptor would get lucky.

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  4. At least Good Will Hunting does a nice job promoting the Fields Medal.

    I saw this a long time ago, but wasn't the Fields medalist portrayed as a complete jerk? The movie was way overly idealistic, but I did not get the impression that Will did not find anything challenging. It's true that he did not find anything interesting, but his disengagement from the world was a psychological problem for him, and not a part of how he approached mathematics per se. Actually, like most movies involving mathematicians, the mathematics itself was not really material to the plot, and could have been replaced by any other academic subject.

    As for the Charlie Eppes character, I'll have to take your word for it that David Krumholtz gets the tone of being a mathematician down pat. (None of my math profs in college were anything like him, so I wonder if maybe a little bit of wishful thinking is going on.) But as far as the show Numb3rs itself goes, I haven't been able to sit through a whole episode--just my personal opinion, but it seems like crap to me.

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  5. For those annoyed by movie mathematicians, I recommend to read "Cryptonomicon" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptonomicon)by Neal Stephenson. One of the main characters is a mathematician, and mathematics plays an important role throughout this (fictional) story. And even Alan Turing plays a role - you've got it all.

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  6. With regard to the egotistical Fields Medalist in Good Will Hunting, my theory has been that the high-achievers that Affleck and Damon are most likely to have run into were Hollywood producers and power-brokers. The big-name mathematicians I have met have been very different from the guy in the movie -- modest, polite, interested in collaboration for its own sake rather than just to enable their own achievement. From my slight acquaintance with Dan Kleitman in grad school, he fits into the modest and personable category, which would argue that the movie character was not drawn from the big-name mathematician they had the chance to observe closely. (On the other hand, the script was probably written before they ran into Kleitman as the technical advisor.)

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  7. What really infuriates me about Good Will Hunting is that it fits neatly into the popular stereotypes about mathematical ability. Either you are good at math or you aren't. If you are, then it is supposed to be easy (so effort and study are a sign of weakness). If you aren't good at math, then why bother? When it stops being easy, you know it's time to give up.

    This myth is incredibly damaging to society and offensive. Of course talent plays a big role in success, but hard work is essential as well.

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  8. Scott's comment about GWH applies to some extent to Professor Eppes as well -- the guy jumps from combinatorics to game theory to differential equations to cryptography to name-your-favorite-trendy-math-area seemingly effortlessly... a bit too unrealistic, if you ask me.

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  9. Aside from Jill Clayburgh in "It's My Turn", are there any female mathematicians in movies?

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  10. I wouldn't vote for this as my favourite, but the list should also include the number theorist in the movie Sneakers was quite funny.

    See http://world.std.com/~reinhold/mathmovies.html
    for a lot more examples.



    Mark Wilson
    www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~mcw/blog/

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  11. "This myth is incredibly damaging to society and offensive. Of course talent plays a big role in success, but hard work is essential as well."

    The portrayal may have been inaccurate, but the myth you are protesting has a whole lot of truth in it, imho. In fact, I think talent is quite a bit more important than hard work. Almost everybody works hard.

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  12. The portrayal may have been inaccurate, but the myth you are protesting has a whole lot of truth in it, imho. In fact, I think talent is quite a bit more important than hard work. Almost everybody works hard.

    My take on this is just the opposite: very few researchers work nearly hard enough to live up to their full potential. Most people could easily spend a couple of hours more each day on research if they really wanted to, and many people could do more than that. Of course, they don't want to, and they have other activities (family, friends, hobbies, television) they wouldn't like to cut back on. There's no reason they should. But if they wanted to, they could get a lot more research done, and probably even do qualitatively better research.

    My impression is that the most successful researchers are usually the hardest working. They usually work long hours (not always super-long, but typically longer than average), and they are highly efficient in how they use their time (there are many ways to waste time while telling yourself you are working).

    It's not clear which way causality goes. I suspect that most researchers could accomplish far more than they do today, but also that people with great talent are especially likely to find hard work rewarding (so talent also leads to working hard).

    I'm not denying the role of talent. It is clearly necessary for research success, but nowhere near sufficient, and I don't believe it's the limiting factor in most researchers' performance.

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  13. I was also offended by the portrayal of mathematicians in Good Will Hunting. I wasn't quite as offended by Matt Damon himself since, who knows, some kid off the street could possibly behave that way. What was bad was the whole portrayal of research mathematics as motivated by ego. People in this movie do mathematics to impress other people, indeed sometimes to conquer or belittle other people, rather for its own sake. This is a better description of (at least some) Hollywood celebrities than mathematicians. Maybe the writers, Damon and Affleck, were projecting.

    The IMDB poll should have included Catherine from Proof as well as Robert. She could be my second favorite after Charlie Eppes.

    Also, Straw Dogs is a very offensive and violent movie, but in my view not particularly offensive because of Dustin Hoffman or his character. (If anyone is to blame, it's the director, Sam Peckinpah.) It's also well-made, almost mesmerizing in certain scenes. At one point Peckinpah plays a great joke on mathematicians --- they can't count to five!

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  14. The portrayal may have been inaccurate, but the myth you are protesting has a whole lot of truth in it, imho. In fact, I think talent is quite a bit more important than hard work. Almost everybody works hard.

    In the short term yes, in the long term no. I've been around this business for nearly three decades and if I had to bet on the probability of success between a hard worker and a talented student fifteen years hence, I would put my money down on the hard working student with out a doubt.

    Of course if you are hard working and talented you'd do even better, but if you had to choose one or the other go for hard work. It will take you farther.

    I have yet to meet a successful scientist who is a slacker, on the other hand I have met a few famous scientists who almost never are the brightest person in the room, but they compensate with steady, solid work.

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  15. the guy jumps from combinatorics to game theory to differential equations to cryptography to name-your-favorite-trendy-math-area seemingly effortlessly... a bit too unrealistic, if you ask me.

    Stephen Smale anyone?

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  16. Here is a suggestion from outside the American movie industry. Readers of this blog might be interested in watching Morte di un Matematico Napoletano (Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician).

    This is an Italian movie that (tries to) explore the complex personality of Renato Caccioppoli, a talented and politically-active Italian mathematician from the first half of the 20th century.

    I believe that the movie won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1992 or 1993.

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  17. Re Stellan Skarsgard's character in GWH: I thought it was established that at least one Fields Medalist is capable of acting like a complete jerk.

    And, extending for a moment to fictional mathematicians: It's been a while since I read Arcadia, but Thomasina always exemplified the wide-eyed wonder which is why many of us got into these kind of subjects in the first place.

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  18. Harrison Brown: There are a few Fields Medalists who have had severe personality problems or have at least been very good at losing friends and alienating people. On the other hand, the strong majority of them are socially normal; in fact many of them are friendly and unusually well-adjusted. The truth is that bad behavior has no real connection to being a mathematician or a great mathematician. GWH, or rather its writers, implied such a connection, and they are just wrong. It is more true in their profession than in ours.

    If I had to pick one scene in that movie that I thought was ill-informed and in poor taste, it was the moment that Hunting humiliates Lambeau by burning his own manuscript. He might as well have mooned Lambeau, since basically they were both acting like monkeys.

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  19. The portrayal may have been inaccurate, but the myth you are protesting has a whole lot of truth in it, imho. In fact, I think talent is quite a bit more important than hard work. Almost everybody works hard.Couldn't disagree more. Nobody is born a great mathematician or scientist; some might be born with more potential to become a great mathematician, but without hard work the potential can't be achieved.

    Also, in my experience, very few people truly work hard enough to become great at what they do. Most people, in whatever career, do enough to keep their job, but not much more than that. Becoming great at something requires a lot more.

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  20. Re Numb3rs: It didn't seem mathematically unrealistic to me. To be sure, some of the things done to impress the pretty starry-eyed female grad student made me grit my teeth :)
    An aside, BTW. Could there be an episode hinging on IP=PSPACE, or NL closed under complements...?! Or is Complexity Theory [gasp!] inapplicable? :-P

    "Straw Dogs" is superbly made, and the violence in it is inherent. Hoffman being a mathematician (working in General Relativity too) was not of central importance, true.

    Pauline Kael called it "a fascist masterpiece" anyway :)

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  21. Could Numbe3rs apply
    IP=PSPACE to reality.
    See Friday Sept 21, 2007
    post of this blog.
    (that show can pretend
    to apply ANY branch of
    math to crime solving).



    bill g (GASARCH)

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  22. There's an excellent Japanese movie called "The Professor and his Beloved Equation" - I happened to see it while flying Singapore airlines (a colleague who had seen it in an earlier flight recommended it).
    It's about a mathematician with a "Memento" kind of problem; he has only short-term memory after an accident, and the movie focuses on his life and interactions with his housekeeper and her son (who he calls root). It's a very moving film, with excellent performances and several little mathematical digressions.
    I read up on this later, and it seems it was based on a very popular Japanese novel - and the author modeled the mathematician after Erdos.

    Hari

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