By the numbers: Why movies about math, like 'The Man Who Knew Infinity', make for great viewing

Sukanya Charuchandra

Apr 30, 2016 15:15:32 IST

Mathematics like other hard sciences can cause one of three reactions — or a combination of them — in most people. The first is sheer hatred and fear of the subject, the second, being fascinated by it, while the third allows for a certain grudging respect for the subject and the people who do it.

Surprisingly (or not) Math has found an ardent supporter in the form of cinema: Moviegoers have been captivated by biopics like The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and A Beautiful Mind. This week, the Dev Patel-starrer, The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biopic on the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan adds itself to this list of movies centred on mathematics or at least the people who practice it.

 By the numbers: Why movies about math, like The Man Who Knew Infinity, make for great viewing

Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity

Cinema and TV have time and again paid tribute to the obscure understanding most people have for the field of mathematics. Apart from the films mentioned above, Matt Damon and Robin Williams' Good Will Hunting comes to mind, as does Proof, Pi and the TV show Numb3rs.

What is it about these movies that regardless of our respective feelings of fear/fascination/respect for the subject of Math itself, draws all of us in universally?

Close inspection leads one to realise that mathematics has featured — chiefly or trivially — in around 800 movies. Maths in movies has been well documented thanks to the efforts of Harvard Professor Oliver Knill who has indexed clips from approximately 150 movies featuring mathematics, and Burkard Polster and Marty Ross, two guys who wrote the book on it. With cinematic examples, this duo explains important concepts in mathematics without leaving out the comical errors made in some movies.

Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

A notch up is the website devoted to math examples from The Simpsons which uses this popular TV show as the basis of mathematics study. The math that was the backbone of the Numb3rs storyline which followed the central character helping his cop brother solve crimes with the help of mathematics was developed by mathematical programmers. The cool visualisations of the math (think angles made by water jetting out of sprinklers) positively made the math more interesting to watchers of the show. If bloopers are your thing, Matt Parker’s YouTube videos on mathematical miscalculations in a few Hollywood movies is a slapstick account of how the math in movies doesn’t always add up.

The formula for a successful movie with an underlying mathematics theme is good acting (Eddie Redmayne, hello!), brilliant direction, certainly, and a healthy glossing over of any real mathematics. Picturising genius isn’t an easy task and the maths of it is just a little out of reach for us common folk. Cue all of the writing of equations and theorems on windows (Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) and mirrors (Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting). That’s enough to get across the highly cerebral nature of the protagonist. There is a sheen to the math in these movies; it appears as though math is all that was needed to change the lives of the heroes. The passion and brilliance of these characters in all their scribbling glory rouses feelings of wonder.

Instead of clinical, orderly, and yes, even boring, mathematics appears to be a haphazard (but verifiable) outpouring of simmering genius.

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe portrayed economist John Nash who struggled with Schizophrenia. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing lived in a world where he had to keep his homosexuality hidden (not all that different from this day and age). Eddie Redmayne skilfully depicted Stephen Hawking’s debilitation as a result of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Srinivasa Ramanujan, Dev Patel’s character dealt with his own share of illnesses and died at the age of 32.

The greatest common factor here wasn’t a powerful mind, but a life moulded by unfortunate circumstances. Maybe it is this which appeals to cinema goers, the idea that not even a great intellect meant that the problems of regular people were outside their range of experience. Or that despite the pain and difficulty of a hard life, these geniuses rose to exponential levels in their chosen fields. With a little (read a lot of) help from mathematics, people went beyond their limitations. Difficulties, a normalising factor, brought their genius closer to the audience. It is a dramatic picture of the inspiring events that makes the math and the men (and women) behind them more approachable.

Matt Damon in and as Good Will Hunting

Matt Damon in and as Good Will Hunting

The mathematics in movies is sometimes accurate (Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, take a bow), sometimes a hilarious fallacy (because 7x13=28) or confusingly motivational (Matt Damon could do it in Good Will Hunting). It may inspire, confound, teach, or trick you.

While the fear of the subject may be rational or irrational (though it is all too real) and your understanding of the subject matter may tend to zero, the root of your fascination for movies like these lies not simply in the math but the mathematicians. Without some explanation it’s unlikely that you’ll ever learn any mathematics from watching a movie. But for those of us that love a good story and are intrigued or amused by the math at the centre (or circumference) of it, there are films enough to keep us interested.

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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2016 15:28:32 IST