Genius by numbers: why Hollywood maths movies don’t add up

From The Beautiful Mind towards the Theory of all things anf the husband Who Understood Infinity, Hollywood loves a math wizzard. Why cant it get past the fevered prodigy scribbling equations on home windows?

In the Tina Fey sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, wealthy Manhattanite Jacqueline Vorhees wails to her assistant that they cant manage to get divorced. Despite the fact that shed get $1m for each year of her marriage.

I spend 100 grand per month. Ill be broke in ten years, she wails. No, thats wrong, counters Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), who scribbles some sums having a marker on Mrs Vorheess window. So $100,000 occasions 12 several weeks. Thats $1.2m annually. Divide that into $12m, you will find, youd be broke in ten years. However if you simply invest a lot of it, presuming a 7% rate of return, while using compound interest formula, your hard earned money would almost double.

Kimmy turns round triumphantly: Mrs Voorhees, I mathed, and you may get divorced! Mrs Vorhees eyes Kimmy narrowly. Individuals aren’t, she complains, erasable markers. What she doesnt mention is the fact that math isnt a verb. Not.

The scene is, amongst other things, Feys satire from the Hollywood cliche of genius squiggling on glass. In A Beautiful Mind (2001), for example, Russell Crowe, playing troubled maths star John Forbes Nash Jr, writes formulae on his dorm window. This scene is echoed in The Social Network (2010), where Andrew Garfield sets the equations for Facebooks business design on the Harvard window while Jesse Eisenbergs Mark Zuckerberg looks on. Within the opening scene of excellent Will Hunting (1997), janitor prodigy Matt Damon writes equations on the bathroom mirror.

So why do a lot of Hollywood maths whizzes forego paper? Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin explains. Depicting a math wizzard scribbling formulas on the piece of paper is much more accurate, however it certainly doesnt convey the look of the person amorously involved with mathematics, along with seeing someone write individuals formulas in steam on the mirror or perhaps in wax on the window, neither is it as being cinematographically dramatic.

Good point. Whenever we see a Beautiful Mind and appear with the window at our Russ, Hollywoods most built math wizzard (counterexamples on postcards, please show your workings), we pass beyond incomprehensive equations and convince ourselves were seeing Genius at the office. Even when, as some critics have complained uncharitably, Russs pi glyphs, greater-than and fewer-than symbols and the like dont seem sensible.

But theres one other way maths movies can confound the Monotony Equation, namely by departing a black hole in which the maths ought to be. The Man Who Knew Infinity, the brand new film starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons concerning the great Indian math wizzard Srinivasa Ramanujan, is intriguing in this way. Although we have seen Ramanujan doing maths, mostly the show has an interest in other activities how he falls deeply in love with his wife, the discomfort of separation as he travels from Madras to review at Cambridge, the racism he suffers in England and, most stirringly, the narrative arc from lowly clerk to globally recognised math wizzard.

Hollywoods most built mathematician Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Photograph: Universal Studios

That said, the film has its charming moments. When Hardy visits Ramanujan in a nursing home, he complains about the boring number of the cab that brought him there. Ramanujan begs to differ: 1,729 is the smallest that is expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. Today 1,729 is known as the Hardy-Ramanujan number. How does that work, you may be wondering? Like this: 1729 = 13 + 123 = 93 + 103.

Ramanujans mentor GH Hardy (Irons) is an atheist and rationalist, exasperated that this Indian prodigy cannot produce proofs for his work and, worse, is doubtful that proofs can explain the inexplicable. You wanted to know how I get my ideas, says Ramanujan. God speaks to me. But while the film may sketch two different mathematical philosophies, we leave the cinema with a warm glow that comes from anything but hard thinking.

If you want to learn some more about Ramanujans contribution to mathematics, rent High School Musical. Freeze-frame it at the moment brainy Gabriella Montez challenges her teacher. On the board are two of the equations of the inverse of the constant pi (1/) that Ramanujan offered in his first paper published in England. Shouldnt the second equation read 16 over pi? asks Gabriella. Of course it should.

Cinema often struggles with dramatising difficult ideas, particularly if they are abstract. One way of overcoming that problem is by metaphorical explanation. For instance, in Nicholas Roegs Insignificance (1985), a Marilyn Monroe-like character demonstrates relativity using toy trains and flashing lights. In The Theory of Everything, Jane Hawking uses a pea and a potato to explain the difference between quantum theory and general relativity, while her husbands friends explain Hawking Radiation with beers and crisps.

Movie explanations of difficult stuff, though, may obscure rather than enlighten. Whats more, some directors know this and have fun pointing out the shortcomings of their medium and those of their audiences. In Adam McKays The Big Short (2016), for example, Margot Robbie sits inside a tub sipping champagne and describing how sub-prime loans work. Her explanation is doubtless coherent, however when Im searching in a beautiful lady inside a bubble bath, I am not considering credit default swaps. So sue me. Later within the film, chef Anthony Bourdain chops fish in the kitchen while describing how collateralised debt obligations work. Finally, Selena Gomez plays roulette as one example of the thought of gambling on other bands gambles.

Each scene works as a parody of explanation. They are members of a movie that mocks you, you poor jerk, as well as your intellectual aspirations. You are not ever likely to know how difficult stuff works from watching movies, however much youd prefer to.

Sometimes, though, cinema can provide a genuine understanding of the intellectual process. In Agora (2009), Rachel Weisz as ancient philosopher Hypatia does a test on the shipped to test relative motion. If, she hypothesises, you drop huge sack in the mast as the ship is continuing to move forward, it’ll fall around the deck several ft behind the mast. The sack is dropped and falls much nearer to the mast than she predicted. Hypatia claps her hands in delight. However, you were wrong! states the ships captain. Yes, but it’s definitive proof! The sack behaves as though the boat were stationary.

What am i saying?

I do not know. However the identical principle could be relevant to our planet. It may be getting around the sun’s rays without us realising.

Hypatia, in other words, infers an innovative heliocentric cosmology from her falsified hypothesis. The show thus generously provides for us what we should are effectively denied in Good Will Hunting or perhaps a Beautiful Mind the news about how someone clever is considering an issue. Furthermore, its an antidote to Hollywoods vision of genius. It shows that getting stuff wrong reaches least as vital within the story of human intellectual progress to be right constantly.

Maths is frequently reduced to simply a MacGuffin. In Rushmore (1998), for example, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is studying the newspaper while his teacher informs his class that around the blackboard may be the hardest geometry equation on the planet. What credits would anybody solving it get, asks one student. Well, thinking about Ive never witnessed anybody understand it properly, including my mentor Dr Leaky at Durch, I suppose if anybody here can solve this problem, Id ensure that none individuals have to spread out another math book again throughout your lives.

Thus enticed, Fischer folds his paper and would go to the blackboard, and squiggles his solution while nonchalantly sipping espresso. The show at this time is not to declare but Fischers genius. Will we really believe Jason Schwartzmann can compute the region of the ellipse? Sure. Whatever.

Genius squiggling can there be once more just to assist Hollywood tell the sentimental story it never tires of: namely the storyline of somebody usually borderline demented by definition insufficiently recognised sticking it towards the establishment.

Genius squiggling Rushmore

None of this should suggest we cant learn maths from movies. In Tina Feys Mean Girls (2004), for example, Lindsay Lohan plays a finalist in the Illinois high school mathletes state championship. Will her Northern Coast High team place it to individuals prep school toffs opposite? Heres the initial question: Two times the bigger of two figures is three greater than five occasions the smaller sized, and the sum of the four occasions the bigger and three occasions the smaller sized is 71. Do you know the figures? First got it yet? 14 and 5. Within the finish, Lohans team end up being the new condition champs because she wins the sudden dying tie-break. Exactly what does the scene prove? That individuals individuals who thought She no longer can do maths should certainly talk to her.

Possibly probably the most resonant maths scene in Hollywood cinema, though, comes in an exceedingly old comedy. Within the Abbott and Costello movie Within the Navy (1941), Lou is really a ships prepare. Hes baked 28 doughnuts, which he reckons is just enough to give 13 to each of his seven officers. But seven adopts 28 four occasions, objects Lous straight man. Not too, states Lou, who procedes to prove it around the blackboard inside a masterclass of cheating and illusion. The scene demonstrates an over-all truth, namely that whenever Hollywood does maths, it doesnt always accumulate.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is released on 8 April.

Find out more: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/06/mathematics-movies-the-man-who-knew-infinity

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