I started writing a post, but the introduction grew to the point of crowding out the actual post. So, here’s the “introduction” as a separate post, and the next post will be the post post.
About fifteen years ago, Burkard came up with a “great idea”: he and I should write a book about mathematics in the movies. I agreed immediately with Burkard’s “great idea” and we began hunting and collecting and organising, and then writing about movies with maths. This included movies such as A Beautiful Mind and Stand and Deliver, with a mathematician or mathematics teacher at the heart of the story, as well as movies that, for whatever particular reason, just happen to have some notable mathematical scene.
Burkard’s “great idea” turned about be an Incredibly Bad Idea. This was for all sorts of reasons. First of all, we way, way, way underestimated the number of movies containing mathematics. When we started, we imagined we’d wind up with maybe a hundred movies, but we discovered new movies as quickly as we could analyse and summarise the old ones, and we wound up with at least a thousand movies and TV series/episodes when we finally yelled “Uncle”. (The current backlog of entries to add to the linked lists is almost as long as the lists.) Secondly, collecting these hundreds of movies was expensive, and an expense we were never likely to, and did not, recoup from the sales of a mathematics book. Thirdly, the overwhelming majority of these movies were mathematically trivial or, worse, incredibly boring; it is an interesting question why, and it would make a good article, which I have no intention of writing. Fourthly, a book about movies is intrinsically awkward, and it takes a skilled writer or a properly clever idea to make it work: we had neither. Fifthly, our source material was insanely unwieldy. The multidimensional mess was impossible to organise in any coherent manner.
Still, in the end and thanks 90% to Burkard, we produced a book. All things considered we think it came out pretty well, and the ten people who bought it seemed to agree. There were other rewards as well. We ran into some crazy movies, and we now have an inexhaustible collection of maths movies clips. There were also some fascinating interviews and weird, unexpected incidents. And, of course, we learned a hell of a lot about maths in the movies.
One of the things we learned is that Asian countries have many more maths movies and TV series than Western countries. Of course, after a moment’s thought, the reason is obvious: mathematics and the competition to succeed is so much more a feature of Asian education, and this then feeds into the culture more generally. That was presumably why, somehow and by precise means unknown, our book was translated into Korean:
In any case, we ended up including lots of Asian material. The funniest was Murder of a Mathematician, a special episode of the Columbo-like Japanese series, Furuhata Ninzaburō; this particular episode (for which we have never been able to locate subtitles) was about Fermat’s last theorem and was shot on location on the Gold Coast. The most excruciating was Chen Jingrun, a painfully long and tedious, and unsubtitled, Chinese TV series about the famous Chinese mathematician; Ying, my Beijing-born girlfriend, suffered through the maths bits so I could know what was going on, and I’m still paying off the debt.
The next post, the post post, will be about a particular Korean movie (and, marginally, about a Korean TV series).