Thursday, June 09, 2016

Math Movies

In 1997 Good Will Hunting, a fictional movie about the hidden mathematical talents of a MIT janitor grossed $225 million and won a best screenplay Oscar for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. At the time the chair of the Chicago math department told me how much he disliked the movie given the way mathematics and mathematicians were portrayed. I told him the movie made math seem exciting and brought public awareness of the Fields medal, mentioned several times in the movie. You can't buy that kind of publicity for an academic field.

In 2001 A Beautiful Mind, on the life of John Nash grossed $313 million in the box office and won the best picture Oscar. In 2014 we saw critically acclaimed movies The Imitation Game (8 Oscar nominations with a win for adapted screenplay and $233 million gross) on Alan Turing and The Theory of Everything (5 nominations with a win for best actor, $123 million) on Stephen Hawking. These movies focused more on the struggles of the lead character than the science itself. Though these movies had their flaws they did show to a popular audience that the goal of math and science are worth an incredible struggle.

And complain all you want about the 2005 TV series Numbers, but get your head around the fact that a show about a crime-solving mathematician lasted six seasons. The Big Bang Theory remains the top US television comedy heading into its tenth season this fall.

Which takes us to the recent movie The Man Who Knew Infinity about the life of Ramanujan, a movie that has gotten wide excitement from mathematicians for the portrayal of the math itself, with credit given to consulting mathematician Ken Ono. I haven't seen the movie as it has barely played in Atlanta. It got critically mixed reviews, grossed only $3.4 million and will probably be forgotten in award season. The Ramanujan story is just not that dramatically interesting.

What's more important: Getting the math right, or taking some liberties, telling a good story and drawing a large audience. Can you actually do both? Because you can't inspire people with a movie they don't see.


  1. I saw the movie this weekend and thought it was a great movie. I thought the arc of the story was nice in itself, but was much more excited about being able to have something so closely related to what I do on the big screen. Afterwards I found myself explaining a lot of different concepts to friends and discussing the need for proofs in math vs the 'intuition' and how different proof styles are more understandable than others. I even brought up the book by James Robert Brown "Philosophy of Mathematics" which discusses things like platonic proofs, picture proofs, constructive proofs and a bunch of other stuff.

    Larger scale, I thought the movie did a good job contrasting Hardy and Ramanujan and I think this contrast gets at the heart of why some people struggle with advanced mathematics. Ramanujan had a great skill to notice patterns (loved the statement about how equation has no meaning unless its a thought from God), but Hardy contrasted that with questions about convincing others of this. I believe at one point there's a question "are we supposed to take you at your word"?

    In response to your question though, I don't really depend on movies to 'educate' me. Its always nice when I can watch and recognize, "hey, they just proved Lagrange's theorem", but I don't see that as the art of Hollywood. Even a fantasy book that had a high level of math is difficult to keep interesting. But the way society's moving with the trends of science and its impact and the people who are generally covered by the news or followed on facebook/twitter being more and more tech gurus instead of just celebrities, I think we'll see more and more of the stories behind mathematics hit the big screen.

  2. I enjoyed the Ramanujan movie (the second half moreso than the first half), but admittedly it helps to know the story going in. It may not be as powerful for people seeing it with little familiarity of Ramanujan. And I'm sorry the movie doesn't better get across the profundity of Ramanujan's work given his background; instead it's more a drama of the relationship between he and Hardy. Even if Ramanujan's life was not "dramatically interesting" it is one of the most fascinating lives in all of mathematics, but that unfortunately draws a narrow audience.

  3. I loved E.T.Bell's "Men of Mathematics" as a child, even though historians of math claim it is full of innacuracies. It can even be a pleasure to find out that the real story is more complicated than what you were told, once you are engaged and interested in the topic by a simple story. Next great math movie: Galois, or the Brouwer-Hilbert controversy?

  4. Movies are entertainment, fictitious and not meant to inform.

    You should never confuse your fiction with your histories or facts.

    That said, they can make a movie about Ramanujan where he is portrayed as an independent, capable and powerful black woman who solves and important math problem and then goes on to have steamy romance with an attractive Hollywood hero.

    If you're trying to simultaneously teach mathematics and make money on big screens that sell sex, good versus evil narratives, explosions and potty humor - you're already doing something wrong.

    The medium is the message. As pseudo-accurate as you think you're going to be with technical facts nobody is going to come out of a 90 minute high definition experience understanding number theory better than if they watched Independence Day: Resurgence of the Alien Invaders God Bless America II.

    So the answer is "Mu": the dichotomy presented in the question does not exist.

  5. I am not sure I understand how Ramanujan's story is "just not that dramatically interesting."

    "A college-dropout goes from starving in poverty to elected Fellow of the Royal Society in ~5 years, while proving a maze of results that keep mathematicians busy for the next 100 years, and then dies of tuberculosis at age 32."

    I am actually having trouble trying to imagine what is "dramatically interesting" if that is not. Why, it is probably too dramatic even for drama!

  6. Good will Hunting is a very good movie..