Math Goes to the Movies

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).

26 Replies to “Math Goes to the Movies”

      1. Indeed, the relative impact of each additional purchase is rapidly declining.

        Read that, readers? Buy now to secure your personal High Impact Purchase! The relative % is still so good, I’d even consider taking the next spot as well… (but only if it was hard cover!)

      2. The investment in Incredibly Bad Ideas are often offset by the sheer stupidity of said Incredibly Bad Ideas.

        Buying this book seems like one of those times, but I suppose I’ve just done it haven’t I… just add it to my list of random but mildly enjoyable bollocks

        (Although I’m loathe to admit I’ve wondered quite a few times something along these lines)

  1. I’ve also been subjected to the many random and actually not-so-arbitrary clips Burkard brought to his various classes so I expect this to be fun too 🙂

        1. I think there’s a 50 minute lesson based around the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the movie Commando (rank and surname).

          (It also has one of my favourite movie lines, totally unrelated to mathematics:

          [Arnie]: Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?
          Sully : That’s right, [Arnie]! You did!
          [Arnie]: I lied. [Arnie releases Sully, who falls to his demise. Back at the car]
          Cindy : What did you do with Sully?

          Spoiler ahead:

          [Arnie]: I let him go.

          1. Math lesson out of his name? It was John “Dutch” Matrix, right? And rank… green beret? Or maybe his old squad, Delta Force?

            Seems tenuous!

            1. His rank is Kernal *ahem* I mean Colonel. Kernal *ahem* Colonel Matrix.

              It’s only one of the greatest unintentional mathematics reference in a movie of all time.

                1. None that I’ve seen. I am certain the character name was an unintended mathematics reference. I am certain it was chosen because it sounded cool. In some movies you might wonder, but not this one – the mathematical reference is totally incongruous with the movie.

                  Movie trivia – According to Alyssa Milano, on the movie set Arnold Schwarzenegger noticed her struggling with her algebra homework and offered to help her out (unfortunately, he got the questions wrong).

                  1. That looks like an AI-generated article but the story could still be true. It’s such an interesting piece of trivia if so! Very cool.

                    1. I think at the time Arnie was planning his next movie – The Educator. (It ended being Kindergarten Cop)

                      (It reminds of another movie that never got made – The Composers. Sylvester Stallone was cast as Mozart, Bruce Willis was cast as Schubert. Apparently Schwarzenegger said “I’ll be Bach …”)

                    2. All I learned from the article is that proficiency at mathematics is un-masculine somehow.
                      What a bizarre headline.

                    3. I think the headline is an example of click-bait.
                      What I learned from the article is that “a math whiz” is a person who helps someone work out the wrong answer to an algebra problem. But maybe there’s a clue in the word “whiz” – perhaps the article is taking the piss …?

                      Anyway, I think the article is simply trying hard (too hard) to show what a great guy Arnie is. That he got it wrong is funny and completely beside the point. As Glen said, if the story is true then it’s pretty cool (and very funny. And if Alysso told her teacher that Arnie helped her get the answer, what teacher is going to say the answer’s wrong? Hasta la vista, baby).

                      Personally, I’d like to see an article gushing over John Horton Conway, saying what a great guy he is because during an algebra class he helped a student with their acting (but got it wrong).

                      Sometimes you’ve just got to laugh instead of looking for a serious (and probably spurious) meaning.

                      PS – Michael Jordan studied mathematics until his junior year at college. With all college players having to pass maths and english at college to play on the basketball team, Jordan excelled in mathematics and his enjoyment for the subject was reflected in his class choices. Who’s going to say His Airness is unmasculine!?
                      And Dolph Lundgren has a Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering (plenty of maths in that).

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