OK, I got a lot more mail than I expected and I haven't been able to incorporate all your suggestions into Math in the Movies. So I decided to punt and just put up the best of the letters. Enjoy! -- agr
The sludge file Lambada (1990). Geometry, pool, and a dancing math teacher. ... This description was fairly entertaining, at any rate.
[I particularly liked the tag line "...proving yet again that there's no obstacle a passionate teacher, committed students, and a tacky, short-lived dance craze can't overcome."]
In Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969), Dr. Forbin remarks that Colossus has formulated original theorems and proofs, and at one point he says: "This is way beyond me...it is deep into Finite Absolutes." Also, as the two computers work together to develop an inter-language, there are seen fleeting glimpses of their trig formulas and calculus integrals.
What a fun site! I'm adding a link to it on our Math Internet Resources web page here at Oakton Community College in suburban Chicago.
One of the best mathematical lines ever occurs in the movie Forbidden Planet, which is one of the most enjoyable 2nd-rate films of all time (ranking up there with Barbarella and Strange Brew.) On the surface a remake of The Tempest in sci-fi form, it is really about sex (obviously) and communism (not so obviously, but Dr. Morbius represents the alleged horrors of what goes wrong when people try to intellectually plan and control their environment too much, producing a seemingly Utopian, but impersonal, material paradise). It has an early (and still incredibly effective) electronic synthesized soundtrack, fantastic color and imagery, and some of the campiest humor around. Highly recommended!
The fractured math comes in when Morbius, talking about some machinery of the aliens known as the Krell, describes its power generating capacity as being that of "10 raised almost literally to the power of infinity!" I personally believe that this is the single greatest confused math line of all time in the movies, being absolute nonsense yet--because of the meaningless phrase 'almost literally'--sounding so absolutely convincing and informative! I use the line all the time myself when describing numerically huge concepts, and in fact regard it as a kind of mantra or even a motto. There's no other significant math in the film, but everything about the film is unique and great. If you haven't seen it yet, I guess you want to soon!
The Prophecy with Christopher Walken has a quote about math. It's not exactly a math scene, but the quote would be of great interest to math teachers. It's something like this: Walken (as the Archangel Gabriel, I think) to a bunch of little kids goings into their school: "Do ya math, kids... It's the key to the universe!"
From: Boo Barkee
Date: Sun, 21 Oct 2001
"Study your math, kids. Key to the Universe." -- Christopher Walken as archangel Gabriel in The Prophecy as he is leaving a bunch of school kids on the steps of the school.It's a great quote, but there's not really any math in the movie. Actually, in my notes I have the quote as:
"See you kids. Study your math. Key to the Universe."
But in tracking down the quote on the net, everyone has it as [I first listed]. It makes me wonder if it is in the screenplay one way and in the movie the other?
There's also a movie with the quote:
"This is mathematics. It's the unifying language of the entire universe."
but unfortunately my notes neglect to mention the movie or character or actor. [There is a similar quote in Contact (1997). A quote search at imdb.com on the term "Mathematics" retrieves several interesting movie quotations, including an excellent one from Richard Feynman. - agr]
There is a very brief, but funny, part in Small Time Crooks with Woody Allen. Early in the film, Woody and his cohorts are planning to rob a bank and have to include another person. There is a discussion of what fraction of the haul they will each get. I wanted to share it with my math class when we were discussing the importance and practical application of fractions.
I never saw Kelley's Heroes, but if it makes the list based on "counting" (tanks, in that case), then maybe you should add another Eastwood counting classic: Dirty Harry. In the scene where he takes on a robber while wolfing down a hot dog, Harry Callahan confronts the criminal:
"I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?"
Ah, if only the criminal could have counted to six ......
The movie 12 ANGRY MEN, is a great one for an entry level math class. They use a lot of simple relationships to try to figure out a problem. Add this one to your list!
I just wondered why you didn't include the sequel to 2001: a Space Odessy - in 2010 they had to figure how to use Jupiter's gravitational pull to slingshot around to Io...IT WAS SO COOL!!!! And I say that, mostly because I majored in Mathematics in college, because the very thought that it could be done...another would be Apollo 13. They used that to get that crew back to the Earth (And that actually happened...I remember that happening! I knew something would happen because of the number thirteen.)
I may not be remembering correctly (it's been some time since I saw the movie), but I think your three star rating for the math in this film should perhaps be augmented by a -3 star rating for its treatment of some mathematicians and physicists. As I recall the film includes some comments by such bright fellows as Penrose, Thorne and Wheeler, without making it clear that these are Hawking's peers, not just adoring acolytes. For whatever reason, S.H. seems to be a poster boy (along with Einstein) for mathematical physics. Well, he deserves much credit, but the public ought to be told that he is not the head on that particular body of knowledge (and I've encountered many people who seem to think that).
P.S. Great Site.
I have one for you, based on a 1940's Abbott and Costello movie whose name, unfortunately, escapes me. The gag is 7x13=28. In the first part, Costello explains his system of dividing 7 into 28. 7 into 2 won't go, so 7 into 8 goes once. He writes the 7 down under the 8 and brings down the 2. Then 7 into 21 goes 3. At this point, Abbott writes down 13 with a 7 under it. 7x3 is 21, says Costello, who then writes down 7x1 (7) under the 1; adding, he once again gets 28. Exasperated, Abbott writes down seven 13's on the board, and begins counting the right column--three, six, nine,twelve,fifteen,eighteen, twenty-one, whereupon Costello continues the count, in the left column, twenty-two,twenty-three,twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight.
Note: According to Brian Harbourne, another collector of Math movies, this scene is from In the Navy (1941)
Ivars Peterson has some more examples of math in Abbott and Costello movies at http://www.maa.org/mathland/mathtrek_3_27_00.html
Recently got what's below in the mail. I'm not an adequate Back to the Future fan to know if its true. In any case, you may find it amusing:
>If you remember the movie "Back to the Future II" you will recall that >Bif goes to the future and steals a Sports Almanac, where in turn he goes >back to the past to give it to young Bif. As we all know Young Bif was >able to become very wealthy by betting on games where he already knew the >final score. > >In an obscure line you hear young Bif say "Florida is going to win the >World Series in 1997, yeah right." > >This movie came out in 1987, ten years before the Marlins did actually >win the world series. And what's really weird is ... Florida didn't >even have a baseball team in 1987. The Marlins are only 5 years old.
I don't know if this qualifies, as it is merely an "in-joke" for those with a mathematics background in the comedy "Bedazzled" with Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Fraser. Hurley plays Satan who is trying to trick Fraser's character out of his soul. During one scene, Hurley is playing at being a "teacher" to a group of young boys. As she starts to talk about homework... she mentions algebra first, and then turns to her chalkboard and says when we will need this before erasing x^n + y^n = z^n, n>2 from the board. It happens very quickly...
I have appreciated your page on The math in the movies. There is another nice movie you missed (among the others) about math. It is an italian movie entitled "Bianca". "Bianca" is a quite common female name.
It is the story of a math teacher involved in a strange case of murder. The movie is very ironic and paradoxal but in few scenes you can see the teacher hearing a student who is explaining very well about geometry. The movie was directed and acted by Nanni Moretti, one of the most appreciated italian living director (he won the Cannes Festival with "caro diario".
ps: sorry for my poor english!
Date: Fri, 3 Oct 1997
From: Savioli Nicolino
Subject: About "Bianca" movie
Yesterday i saw again the movie. The most remarkable thing in the movie (about math) is the discussion betwenn the teacher and a student about a "magic square" on the blackboard:
13 2 3 16 11 8 5 10 6 9 12 7 4 15 14 1
I suppose you know what it is :-)) (the sum is alwais 34 in any direction)
Thanks for your neat page. I imagine you'll be swamped with suggestions, but here is one of my favorites:
Breaking the Code, which is a BBC made-for-TV flick with Derek Jacobi playing Alan Turing. The movie spends most of it's time on Turing's personal life, but Jacobi does a wonderful job in two or three scenes describing the thrill of doing mathematics. This was a fairly successful stage play, as well.
Thanks a lot.
Date: Fri, 17 Oct 1997
From: Keli Sato <
There was a movie that was on PBS recently about Alan Turing. It was originally a play, called Breaking the Code (or was it Codebreaker). I believe it was on Masterpiece Theater. The title is a play on words, since it was as much about Turing's homosexuality as computing machines. I can't say for sure, but I beleive the code that was central to the play was the German Enigma code. Sorry I can't tell you much about it, but I recommend you try to find it. It was excellent, even for someone who doesn't know much about computing history or WWII.
From: Rhabyn Stein
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 1999
Hi! I enjoyed your site very much. What a great idea!
I can think of a couple of movies that have some math-related scenes: One is Breaking The Code. It's a Brit-TV movie starring Derek Jacobi about the life of computer whiz Alan Turing. It focuses mostly on his personal life but there are a couple of scenes which indicate the challenges he went through in trying to break the Nazi code which had kept Britain isolated in the first few years of the war. The other movie is Insignificance, directed by Nicholsa Roeg. It is a fictional account of a meeting beteween Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. In the course of the meeting Marilyn supplies a rather unconventional but basically accurate explanation of the Theory of Relativity.
Both of these movies are available on video though it is unlikely that stores like Blockbuster will have them. Hope that was some help!
Dear Mr Reinhold,
another Italian movie about a mathematician is Cartesius (1974) (TV) by Roberto Rossellini, a biography of Rene Descartes. Unfortunately, despite the director's fame, the movie is not available on DVD or VHS.
Thank you so much for your site. I am trying to teach my students that math is not all formulas.
Two movies not included are:
Clan of the Cave Bear (Darrell Hanna)
In a scene at the beginning of the movie, one cave man is teaching Hanna mathematics. He can count to five and is considered a great mathematican. (The clan can only understand "three"). Hanna counts to twenty and her teacher is dumb struck. One example why teachers should know more than the student.
The second is Apollo 13. This movie is full of terrific problem solving activities. The problems do not have "formula" solutions because the mishaps of Apollo 13 have never even been simulated before.
Hope this is what you are searching for.
[I have some personal recollections relevant to Apollo 13. In 1966, while working as a summer intern at NASA Houston, I attended a weekend conference to review the entire moon mission plan. There was one presentation on each phase of the endeavor, but planning for possible aborts was so complex that it was broken into several presentations. At one point during one of these, someone (it may have been Von Braun) asked about using the Lunar Module as a lifeboat. He was told that the LM lifeboat mode had been dropped as a formal abort plan because it could only be used in the first third of the mission. He followed up by asking if anything had been done to preclude the LM being used in this way and he was assured that there wasn't. -- agr]
My name is Rita Aggarwala, and I was just looking through your math in the movies page. There is a movie called Class Action in which a father and daughter, both lawyers, are defendant and prosecutor in a big court case involving the alleged fowl play of a car manufacturer in not recalling cars with the potential to explode. I'm terrible with actor/actress names, but both the lead roles were played by famous people (I think the father was Gene Hackman?).
In the movie an actuary is called to the stand, and he explains that he did some work for the company in working out the odds of the faulty cars actually exploding, the resulting legal fees if each case went to trial and lost, and comparing that to the cost of recalling and fixing all the cars. Statistically, the company was better off not recalling the cars. This was a key scene in the movie, and being and actuary and a statistician, I found that it was very nicely incorporated into the film and raised all kinds of questions about ethics in statistics.
Overall, the film itself was also very enjoyable.
I'd like to know of more films dealing with statistics, if you know of any, as I'm a professor of statistics and I promised my class a film near the end of term!
Thanks for the page.
From: Eric Erpelding
Subject: A Gary Cooper Math Movie
Date: Wed, 31 May 2000
Hi, I saw your "Math in the Movies" page. Very interesting.
There is one movie that I would like to suggest you make mention of. It is a Gary Cooper movie, titled Cloak and Dagger. In this movie, Gary Cooper plays a nuclear physicist who is recruited as a secret agent. He has to find out what an Italian nuclear scientist is working on. He is parachuted into Italy.
While hiding out from the authorities, he hids overnight in the town square's carrousel. Here is the math part. To pass the time, he calculates a "line integral" that gives the distance one of the carrousel's horses travels as it goes up and down over the circular path.
The calculation looks valid, I think I saw some sort of series expansion, followed by term-by-term integration. I will have to get the movie, slow this scene down, and take notes.
A warning! Once, I saw this shown on TV, and was waiting for this scene to appear, but it was replaced by a scene where Cooper hid overnight under a bridge! There might be an interesting story why two different versions exist!
Well, this is my contribution to spotting "math in the movies" Hope you find it interesting.
In the movie CLUE there is a very funny scene where miss scarlet and wadsworth are fighting over how many bullets were left in the gun where they are doing very simple of math of 1+2+1+1 or 1+1+2+1, very funny very basic but containing math!
You have overlooked the recent movie Contact with Jodie Foster as radio astronomer. A very inspiring film for both young and old students.
There was some discussion about prime numbers when signals were being received. I thought a good intro to the concept for folks who may never have heard of such. Also, just appplications to radio astronomy - quantification, signal analysis and such.
[But I did review Contact. Maybe we are in parallel universes. -- agr]
The movie Conte d'Été (A Summers Tale) by Eric Rohmer was recently shown in German TV. I missed it, so I could not say whether this movie really contains mathematics. But the hero of this romance is a SHY Math student - not so common.
[I got more mail about Cube than any other flic. Here are a couple and a link to more. -- agr]
Date: Thu, 04 Feb 1999
From: Eberth Alarcon II
I recently saw a movie named Cube in which five people wake up inside a cubical room contained inside a 3-d array of cubes. They have to figure out how to exit the array. The rooms are numbered by a code which the characters must decipher - it ends up having to do with primes and prime powers.
This is definitely a B-movie, and there are a couple of gory special effects. I don't know if it's the type of thing you want for your site. If you wish, I could submit a review to you.
Date: Wed, 6 Sep 2000
From: Brendan Horgan
I looked at your website Math in Movies hoping to find an explanation for much of the math in the movie Cube, but unfortunately, its not listed. Here's a summary of the film:
Six people from different walks of life awaken to find themselves in a enormous maze composed entirely of cube shaped rooms. They work together, using their varied skills and knowledge to avoid the deadly traps and search for an exit. They also must face the dangers posed by themselves as their personalities come into conflict in this intriguing sci-fi/thriller.
The mathematics mentioned in the film are extensive since the key to avoiding the traps and locating the exit lie in the numbers that identify each room of the cube. Subjects that are touched upon include: prime numbers, powers, factors, the Cartesian coordinate system, and permutations.
I would rate it: Math*** Film****
I recommend that you see this movie.
I would suggest that you add the Disney movie "Donald in Mathmagic Land." I also saw a film version of "Flatland" but do not remember the publisher.
[A restored version is available from Disney.com -- agr]
Date: Thu, 24 Feb 2000
From: JOHN JEFFREY ROSE
In the late fifties or early sixties Disney produced a cartoon called Donald in Mathemagicland. It is a short film about math, namely geometry. Maybe it doesn't qualify but it is the funnest film I've seen about math.
Date: Wed, 11 Jun 1997 16:22:18 +0200
From: Christoph Stampa
I read the www-site on mathemathical movies and I know another one:
Donald in the Mathemagics Land by Walt Disney
I'm a high school math teacher and read your site on math movies with great interest. I'd like to suggest a few more:
"Englishman who Went Up a Hill But Came Down A Mountain" stars Hugh Grant as a surveyor sent to a small town to see if their mountain qualifies as one by being over 1000 feet tall. Though the movie does not explain the trigonometry behind their surveying, they do show Grant and his colleague collecting data and comparing it with other known hill heights of the region. There is a hilarious scene where the residents are betting on how high the mountain is, and the inaccuracy of their numbers show why we need trig as a more reliable method.
"Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country", though technically not a "math" movie has the best examples of logic I've seen in any film. Spock uses laws of contrapositive, detachment, transitivity, and ruling out possibilities to investigate the assassination of the Klingon leader and expose a conspiracy. I've shown the film in every Geometry class I've taught as a fun introduction to proofs.
"The Hunt for Red October" has a scene that provides the foundation for a good vector trigonometry problem. The scene depicts Connery and his crew navigating a Russian submarine through the canyons of "Red Route One". The movie posts the speed in knots, course heading (0 degrees being due North and 180 degrees due South), and length of duration for each leg of Red Route One. There is actually enough given information to determine the exact path of the submarine. Technically this is not a math movie, but I've incorporated this scene in trig and geometry classes.
Hope this info was of some help to you. Thanks for making the cool site!
Mira Costa High School
Date: Sat, 16 Jan 1999
From: Jack Latkowski
My name is Jacek Latkowski and I am currently teaching IB Higher Level Math Courses at Munich International School in Germany. I came here about 3 years ago from Canada. I also love films. One classic example comes from Werner Herzog's "Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" (original German title - Jeder für sich, Gott gegen alle) with Bruno S. (I saw this film for the last time about 18 -19 years ago).
Kaspar Hauser after being discovered in the cellar, becomes a subject to testing. Professor of Logic comes from the university and attempts to test Kaspar's intelligence by asking him the question about the city of liars and the city of truth tellers and the cross road leading from both cities. Kaspar responds : Ask the person: are you a frog ? (I think it was a frog but it could be something else - 18 years have gone by). Logic professor is furious - no, no it is not a logic question - you are an idiot . I always use this story in my class while teaching logic - some German students know the story of Kaspar Hauser. Best regards
I like your list. Although not a movie, the most impressive math program must be BBC's documentary on Prof. Wiles' proof of Fermat's last therorem
Even the transcript is a gem.
Any room for that on your page?
[ Fermat's Last Theorem (1997) A transcript of the program is available online. --agr]
Last Christmas I've created a maple worksheet on the math. in the movie: Good Will Hunting and subsequently exported its content to HTML to make it readable for everyone.Please have a look at the following page at the Maple application center:
Date: Wed, 25 Feb 1998
From: Stephen Gagola
Subject: Good Will Hunting
I visited your web site concerning math in movies, since I was hoping to read the actual math problems that were posted in Good Will Hunting. (Naturally, they were too fleeting to read during the movie. I suspect the actual questions were mundane.)
It would be great to see the other occurances of math as well. During one of the lectures, the board contained what looked like elementary linear algebra (a possible definition of eigen-values and eigen-vectors) conjoined with stuff from Fourier analysis on another panel. Is all the math connected? Or, as I fear, just rambling symbols put up by three persons independently on three panels. The manuscript that Hunting hands his professor also passes all too briefly under the camera's eye. I really would like to see what the infinite product led to (if indeed this is what it was). I think it would be neat to have all of the actual math contained in the movie posted at your site. -- Steve Gagola Kent State U
Date: Mon, 29 Dec 1997
From: Chris Bentzel
Just saw "Good Will Hunting" this afternoon: saw it in your list of upcoming attractions.
This was a tremendous film, even outside of the math. Math plays fairly well into the movie: the title shows pages of texts through a kaleidoscopic view, as well as the cover to Godel, Escher and Bach. Later on, several discussions about Riemann integrals and Fourier Expansions. When the professor goes to the Phys Plant equivalent, states that his office is in Building 2 (although we never really see it... external shots of MIT were used, but didn't see internal shots.)
The film itself could easily fall into the "Exploited Gifted Prodigy" type stories, but never allows itself to do it. Great portrayal of several bright individuals and their humanity.
Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998
From: Ian Agol
Subject: Good Will Hunting
Nice website - math in the movies. I don't know if you were looking for comments on the movies, but here's what I noticed about "Good Will Hunting". It was ironic that there was a fields medalist in combinatorics, since there hasn't been to date - maybe someone was making a hint.
The math that they show on the chalkboard in class seemed to be fourier analysis, and the professor mentions that the extra credit problem is a problem in Fourier analysis. But when they show the problem on the chalkboard, it seems to be a combinatorics problem. They ask for the adjacency matrix for a graph which is drawn, and ask to calculate transition probabilities, up to third order (or something like that). I believe this only amounts to calculating the third power of the adjacency matrix, and identifying certain entries, which is a pretty trivial problem. There might have been some determinant involved too, but it went by too fast.
I wasn't able to follow the second problem - I couldn't read the writing. It seemed like the solution was simple - a handful of trees, but it wasn't clear what the question was.
There was one point where the two mathematicians are calculating the chromatic polynomial for a simple graph. It seemed like they were using a formula for the chromatic poly. when two subgraphs intersect in a complete graph, but in this case it isn't necessary, since there is an easier method to compute (basically by shelling, or common sense). But they high-five each other when they're done, as if they had accomplished something. I was laughing like everyone else in the theater, but maybe for a different reason...
The other math went by too fast for me, but there seemed to be more chromatic polys. I was surprised to learn that the NSA does superstring theory.
I would be interested to know what a combinatorist's impression of the movie was - I don't think I understood some of the formulae. I hope a mathematician wasn't responsible for the equations - they could have picked some harder problems that still looked cool. I noticed Sheldon Glashow's name in the credits, but I'm not sure what they consulted him about.
Date: Fri, 3 Apr 1998
From: Thomas Zaslavsky [Well known combinatorist and SGPNR Fellow - agr]
I saw "Good Will Hunting" last night, finally. It's good! It's quite romantic, in a good way--not very soppy. I don't think the mathematician is as bad (as a person) as you suggested in MitM. However, he certainly is oversimplified. In fact, almost everything is oversimplified. The math'n is oversimplified to be narrow (not that I don't know precedents for it, but he's still too simplified), the psych is oversimplified to be warm and understanding, the therapy is over- simplified to be dramatic. The young peoples' relationships are the least oversimplified. That said, the script is good, sometimes excellent. The simplifications are dramatically sound (except for the math'ns, I agree). The biggest defect as I see it is the complete lack of any intellectual joy. Why does Will bother doing math or reading chem or history? You never see him actually enjoy it. Nor does anyone else. Not that they don't enjoy it, but why do they bother with it? The highest ambition a brilliant young mathema- tician can have is to get a job with the NSA or in some indefinite commercial operation (I think of finance with its "derivatives"). That's all wrong. It certainly isn't what motivated Ramanujan--no thought of getting a job out of mathematics, there.
I forgot the other big defect from the viewpoint of anyone with any mathemat- ical knowledge--the math is pathetic. I think a chemist would say the organic is pathetic and a psychologist might say the therapy is pathetic but perhaps it's at least dramatically valid, which the math and chemistry are not.
Then there's the other big strength. Robin Williams really is wonderful. I haven't seen any other Oscar nominee in any category, but Williams has such great presence, he's a delight from beginning to end. You just can't miss it.
I thought we would see Blg. 2. But I don't recognize a single interior as belonging to MIT. I never saw a professor's office at MIT that approxi- mated the luxury in the movie. Nor anywhere else that I can remember! If there's a math professor in the U.S. that has a faithful assistant like the one in the movie, I never heard of it. These are mild as Hollywood exaggera- tions go, though. The typical poverty-stricken artist in Hollywood has a 3000-square-foot apartment (I mean the one in some stupid movie I saw a part of recently; the artist was in California, not Montmartre or Rome).
Still, it was good and I did enjoy it a lot. The direction Will moves in is one that makes sense for him. The movie ends on just the right note--he does find what he wants, and it's dramatically and personally sound.
From: Steven Kilgore
Date: Sun, 26 Jul 1998
I am not sure I understand the consistency between ratings given for the math content of the movies reviewed. "BIG" gets a "***" for a minor discussion of the basic principle of algebra. Meanwhile, "Good Will Hunting" shows some very high level conbinatorial equations (with admittedly little explanation of them) and gets a "*" for math.
There is a suggestion in the review that pain related to possessing genius is comparable to that related to child abuse (certainly a debatable concept) and that this is ignored. However, the tension between his South Boston background and the atmosphere of MIT is all about that conflict as are the discussions of whether the opportunity to achieve scientific (or any) advances can be properly placed ahead of the psycho-social needs of the individual.
While I don't defend all aspects of the movie, and its omits some important themes, the coordination between the math they talk about and the Math they show on the board might deserve more than a "*" for math or at least an examination of the degree of coordination. What other movie has discussed both the Field Medal and Ramanujan?
P.S.: the hyperlink given for Ramanujan doesn't seem to be related to the subject. A better one might be: http://www-groups.mcs.st-and.uk/history/Mathematicians/Ramanujan.html.
From: Owen Thomas
Subject: movie math
Date: Sat, 28 Feb 1998
my review of Good Will Hunting is posted on my website: http://people.delphi.com/vlorbik/tenpage/goodwill.html (your page is cited).
Date: Sun, 21 Sep 1997
From: Lawrence B. Rosenfeld
Subject: Math on TV
Dear A.G.R. -
In an episode of "Head of the Class," (and I'm sorry I can't pinpoint it in time), the regular teacher is temporarily replaced by the class math whiz' father "a practicing mathematician," in order to get the class peaked for their upcoming AP Calculus exam.
In order to lighten things up, dad tells a calculus joke/riddle:
Q: What do you get when you cross an elephant with a grape?
A: Elephant, Grape, Sine Theta. (yeah, he leaves out the unit vector, but I still fell off the couch laughing!)
[Then there's "What's purple and commutes? -- An Abelian Grape." Maybe we need a Math Grape Jokes page. -- agr]
In I Went Down, one of the criminals is gagged and tied to a hotel bed. His captors provide him with a TV and enough wiggle room in his right hand to operate a remote control. He scans through the channels a bit, gets to a math telecourse dealing with complex numbers and the fundamental theorem of algebra, and drops the remote. He is shown writhing in agony (or is it ecstasy?). I liked the idea of atoning for sins by watching proofs.
On a more negative and rather pathetic note: the geeks in Never Been Kissed hold a bake sale featuring, you guessed it, pie. The sign/banner on their table states something like, (the symbol for) pi = 3.14569..., pie = 75 cents. Everyone knows you should charge at least a dollar for everything at a bake sale!
Thanks for a great site! Any similar stuff? Math in literature?
Very interesting sound clips, aside from this one.
[Cool link. Works ok as of Jan. 2001. -- agr]
If I remember correctly, I recently saw The Ice Storm and one of the boys in the film goes up to his big brother for help on his Math homework and the big brother goes into a long explanation on the wonders of mathematics. Definitely a must see in terms of Math in the Movies.
[I liked that scene, but the movie as a whole was a downer. -- agr]
From: Xah Lee
In The Ice Storm (1997), there is this brief passage where a somewhat spacy teenager Mikey Carver (played by Elijah Wood) who is into geometry, and explains to his brother how geometry is perfect but can only be so in the mind.
The description is quite fitting to people who are into geometry, and is fascinating to watch because the way it is genuinely acted out.
Nice job on your site.
IMDB has a film list at keyword "mathematics" ...
They'll be adding Donald in Mathmagic Land and Stand and Deliver, just because I felt like adding them.
Of course, there's also the Scarecrow's hilarious version of the Pythagorean Theorem in the Wizard of Oz, which he states with authority (after all, he has a diploma!)
Just been back to your "Math in the Movies" page, and loved it again.
One quibble: your one-* rating for the maths in "The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy" is a bit harsh. I haven't seen the film/TV version, but the original radio series and books have a lot of very funny spoof maths (the infinite improbablility drive etc) which chow a pretty high level of mathematical understanding.
Have you seen the film "Insignificance", which (if I remember) has four characters, an actress (Monroe), physicist (Einstein), baseball player (di Maggio) and senator (McCarthy), and has the actress explaining relativity to the physicist.
You might also include a movie called "Insignificance" which came out in the 80's. In it, Marilyn Monroe and Einstein meet in a hotel room in NYC, and Monroe explains relativity to him. It's a strange movie, but really good.
From: David Fowler
Date: Sat, 25 Mar 2000
1. Insignificance. Marilyn Monroe on her hands and knees explains the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein. 1985. Directed by Nicholas Roeg. Cast: Michael Emil , Theresa Russell ,Tony Curtis ,Gary Busey ,Will Sampson,...
2. Una Pura formalità. (1994) with Roman Polanski, and Gérard Depardieu. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Depardieu is a murder suspect being interrogated by the village police. After they bash his face against a desk a few times, they show him a picture of his high school geometry teacher. Depardieu gives a lovely reminiscence of the professor's description of two parallel lines stretching out to meet at an ideal infinite point.
[A friend] points out that relativity theory is physics not math. So the first item should not have been listed under "math in the movies."
These days, physics and math are getting closer: string theory may be as much math as physics. I don't know of any movies yet with string theory.
David Fowler Editor-in-Chief Mathematica in Education and Research
Just discovered your terrific site as I was leaving for two weeks in Europe, so don't have time even to check whether you already have the following. But nothing lost if you do:
I have a hazy, thirty-year memory of the movie Last Year in Marianbad. I haven't seen it again--in part because I remember the star, whose name was, I think, Delphyne Serig, as being breathtakingly beautiful (and experience has taught that revisiting such experiences makes one wonder what he was smoking at the time).
Anyway, much of the film revolved around Nim, in the form that the one forced to take the last match loses (and the one who makes the first move always wins).
I seem to remember that the Nim expert went second. Whether this was  a slightly daring risk that the opponent wouldn't (out of luck, knowledge, or an astonishing ability to crack Nim the first time he played it) or  an oversight of the film (doubtful), I don't know.
Know anything about this?
[How could I forget Marianbad? I remember seeing the movie when I was an undergrad. The mysterious mood was punctured by the Nim scene since I understood how he won. Going second is actually a quite small risk against a naÔve opponent and, of course, going second is essential if the initial game is in the winning configuration (an even number of bits in each column). -- agr]
Date: Fri, 05 Dec 1997
From: Mark Dillman
Subject: M Mouse
I was watching a Disney video with my sons last night, "The Prince and the Pauper" starring Mickey Mouse. There is a scene with Mickey sitting through a boring Trigonometry lesson while shooting spit wads at Donald Duck. The math is okay. The instructor was unfortunately stereotyped.
You *must* see Infinity, Matthew Broderick's biopic about Richard Feynman. There's a priceless scene where he has a calculating duel with a guy with an abacus. Feynman, using pencil and paper, adds a bit slower, but multiplies slightly faster, and really whips him in the cube root competition. Afterward, he explains it all to his fiancee.
Recently, a coworker and I read your article "Math in the Movies" in the April 1997 Math Horizons. We found it very interesting, and would like to point out some additional scenes and films.
In Kelley's Heroes, in addition to counting the enemy tanks, note that Don Rickles' character "Crapgame" checks his math on the value of the gold and how to split it up among the troops by having his assistant solve large multiplication and division problems in his head- and the assistant does it!
Since you mentioned "The Seven Samurai", note that in The Magnificent Seven that the hired guns are constantly tallying up their own and their enemy's numbers and calculating the ratios.
[The bad guys count their losses, but the good guys never figure out how many are left. -- agr]
My coworker claims that there is also a lot of counting up on both sides in the classic "Zulu".
Finally, note that the visitor in "The Day The Earth Stood Still" gains an introduction by solving a complex math problem. I haven't seen the film recently and couldn't say for sure the math problem is legitimate, but as well done as the movie is, it wouldn't surprise me.
If I come across anything else, I'll email you. Thanks for the great article!
This is just to inform you that your site has been chosen as today's Geek Site of the Day. Considering the massive number of sites (implicitly) competing for that honor, I do hope you're pleased. Feel free to check out the site and link to it if you'd like.
Have you ever seen the movie Mercury Rising? Some neat cryptography references that are actually somewhat accurate... plot is interesting but trite.
[I did see it. Here is a review I wrote for rec.arts.movies.current-films: -- agr]
"Even though the reviews were poor, I had to check out "Mercury Rising" for my Math in the Movies site,I was not surprised to find the movie math-free and unsuitable for my page. I was surprised to find that I liked the film a lot.
Given the situation, the plot is well thought out. Miko Hughes played an autistic 9-year old code cracker so well Dustin Hoffman should be jealous. Bruce Willis, as the kid's protector, was understated and as believable as any action hero Willis has portrayed. So why did the reviewers pan it? After reading a bunch of reviews there seems to be two main complaints: the "F" word -- formula and the believability of the premise.
We can darken a lot of theaters by removing formulaic movies. Formulas exist because they work, and all I ask is that is that a film try a new angle. This one does. The kid is not an amateur cop wannabe who helps defeat the bad guys , nor a lovable but misunderstood waif who serves as a bridge to romance, or a even potential adoptee saving the hero from his lonely existence. He is just a scared kid who got a lousy deal and really needs Willis' help. That Willlis cares elevates this character above most of his roles. The small flash of warmth at the end is poignant and believable.
As for the premise that an autistic kid can break an NSA supercode just by staring at it, well first of all it is just a premise. Most action movie premises are incredible. But is this one so unbelievable? Many codes today are based on the unproved difficulty of solving certain mathematical problems. I know real live mathematicians who are not convinced they are unsolvable. Suppose a codemaker, pressured into releasing his cipher prematurely, did publish a sample problem in a puzzle magazine, maybe to relieve his nagging doubts, and some savant kid did solve it. Travel faster than light or across time never seems to bother people. The premise here is much more realistic. As for why Kim Dickens' character takes Willis and the boy in, well Willis is desperate and takes a chance on her maternal instincts. Would it have been more believable if they slept together?
This film is not the place to learn about codes and codebreaking, but the story is a cut above most action adventure movies."
The song is called "The Square of the Hypotenuse", music by Saul Chaplin, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. I found a copy in a book called THE MATHEMATICAL MAGPIE by Clifton Fadiman [Simon and Schuster, 1962].
Thanks for a very enjoyable site.
From: John Pearson
Subject: Merry Andrew
Date: Mon, 14 Feb 2000
The song about Pythagoras is called "The Right Triangle". It doesn't seem to be available on CD.
Date: Wed, 11 Jun 1997
From: Don Coudert
... Finally, regarding "Merry Andrew" and the song "The Square of the Hypotenuse" ... used it in my geometry class... Their song and dance routine can be found at http://k12s.phast.umass.edu/~dcoudert/hypsong
From: Christa Snow
Date: Wed, 03 Oct 2001
I saw the Danny Kaye movie "Merry Andrew" before I went into the seventh grade (aproximately 40 yeasr ago). The song on the Pythagorean Theorum was sufficiently memorable that when my 7th grade math teacher asked if anyone knew what the relationship of the hypotenus to the two side of a triangle was, I was the only one who knew, knew immediately, and correctly. That scene is great, good fun. You really should see it.
Date: Mon, 13 Dec 1999
From: Alex Kasman
There is a Brazillian film called Moebius based on the short story about a topologist who discovers the explanation for subway cars that have vanished in Boston (Buenos Aires in the movie). I'm afraid I have not seen the film, but it is in the IMDB as:
Check out my webpage at: http://math.cofc.edu/faculty/kasman/MATHFICT for other things you might have missed. Most of the things I list are books or stories, and so they are not relevant to your list, but occasionally movies and TV shows do pop up.
This is a great site. I have some ideas for other movies but not clear enough to mention. Did you realize that in the movie "IQ" the fat jolly guy with the cane who hangs around Einstein and is played by Lou Jacobi (the guy who played Tannenbaum on "Barney Miller" and I don't think any relation to Derek Jacobi who played Alan Turing in something) is supposed to be Godel?
You should consider including "The Fifth Element" in which the protagonist not only instantly counts his enemies, he also performs subtraction (the 'negotiation' scene).
It would probably be good to include "Dambusters" in which is the true story of an applied mathematician/engineer named Barnes-Wallace who determines how to flood the Ruhr valley by developing a skip-bombing technique, wherein there are several special geometric navigational aids which are also important. The raid was successfully carried out and the Ruhr valley was indeed flooded, but the impact on the German war effort was disappointing.
I didn't notice the Kevin Costner film "No Way Out" in which an iterative image processing algorithm figures prominently and 'eigenvalues' are mentioned.
Great web page. You may consider adding the following titles:
There is new release of the 1965 Polish epic "Saragossa Manuscript." The film features a character who expounds on 18th century mathematics and rational philosophy at some length.
Second, (and here I am beating my own drum) In 1993 I made a one-hour doc about Paul Erdös, "N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös." You can find references to it on the AMS web site. It is distributed by MAA, A. K. Peters, by Facets, and by myself. If you want more information, please write me at email@example.com
Best wishes and congratulations,
You might want to check out the old Kevin Costner movie "No Way Out." I haven't seen it for a while but I remember seeing it in grad school with a bunch of other mathies and laughing at some of the ridiculous things said in the room where they are trying to recreate a picture from a polaroid "pull-off". I remember it as a really great movie with bad math. (But maybe it was Kevin Costner in those white navy pants! A much younger Kevin costner and a much younger me!) I really enjoyed your site and got to it from the website of a textbook that we teach from -
Date: Fri, 24 Oct 1997
From: Steve Friedberg
Film: "No Way Out," (1987), Directed by Roger Donaldson, starring Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman
In this film the director of computer operations (?) at the Pentagon is trying to reconstruct a damaged negative of someone (Costner) who is believed to have committed a murder. As Costner is a friend of the director, he asks that the reconstruction process be slowed down. The director calls his computer aide and tell him to try a different eigenvector.
What about the closing scene of The Wizard of Oz. When the scarecrow gets his brain, he tries to quote the Pythagorean theorem...but makes a slight error.
<**** the next 4 aren't indexed>
There was an episode on Northern Exposure with a female mathematician that gets excited by transcendental numbers...a "love scene" follows....numbers sound so sexy in this one!
The Labyrinth with David Bowie.... a scene when the main character is trying to determine which door to enter since one leads to the castle and one leads to certain death, she can ask only one question to determine which door to use. There is also a visual when she finds her brother in the castle...reminds me of an Escher print.
I also recommend Malcolm X, the scene where he simply refers to the fact that x stands for the unknown...simple but it's math!
From: Andrew Cumming
Date: Tue, 21 Nov 2000
Terrific site. Great fun. You don't have the Wizard of Oz. When Oz gives the Scarecrow his diploma (in lieu of brains) the straw man instantly misquotes Pythagoras's theorem:
"The square of the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides."
"Isosceles" sounds much cleverer than "right-angled" and so the license should be excused - it has a much better rhythm as well. Who do we speak to about getting theorem changed?
I think you are too hard on Jurassic Park. Surely any use of mathematics in a seduction (Jeff Goldblum dripping water on Laura Dern to illustrate chaos) is worthy of inclusion.
Date: Fri, 02 Apr 1999
From: Karen L. Pagel
Subject: October Skies
This is a movie that should be added to your math in the movies page, nice little explanation of the use of the quadratic in relation to the flight and landing of a rocket
October Sky was about a boy that studied math and became a person that helped to design space shuttles. I think that's the right name for it. We watched it in Precalculus.
From: sfuqua M
Date: Fri, 25 Aug 2000
Just browsed through your page and noticed that you have not added October Sky. It's the movie about Homer Hickum, an engineer at NASA, who beats the odds and gets out of a small coal-mining town by using science and mathematics. He even teaches himself some trig., calculus and differential equations. Great trig/parabolic motion scene at the chalkboard. I show it to all of my Calculus/Precalculus students. They enjoy it even more than Stand and Deliver. It's funny, interesting and has an excellent soundtrack.
my spies tell me there's a movie called $\pi$:
" `$\pi$' is by first-time director Darren Aronofsky, "who crafted a compelling black-and-white "character study of a mathematician pursuing pure "knowledge and fending off its perversion by "business or religion. `$\pi$' has been hotly discussed "here [=sundance festival], though it is an emotionally cold "film, it is itchily intelligent -- just the sort of thing that plays "well to cognoscenti but escapes mainstream audiences."
this may or may not be from the washington _post_ (my spies aren't always forthcoming about their sources).
_math_in_the_movies_ is great.
yours in the faith.
From: Andrew Buhr
Date: Tue, 8 Sep 1998
Subject: Pi - the movie - erratum
one particular thing that i noted was in his discussion of the golden ratio he wrote out the equation
which of course forces b=0, a=0 instead of
dunno if you want to post specific kvetches like this on your math/movies webpage, but if you do, it's there for you.
good movie tho
Date: Sun, 30 Jan 2000
From: Ryan McNally
I just got through reading your page and I have to agree that math and science are very poorly understood by hollywood. I have a couple of additions that you might find interesting.
1-Pi. The value of pi given during the opening credits is wrong. The first 9 or so decimal places are correct and the rest are just random. Someone must have gotten the first ones from a hand calculator and just made up the rest.
2-Never been kissed. In this movie the main character hangs out with a group of "smart" kids. In one scene they have a sign that says "pi =" and a number that rounds off to 3.15. I still can't believe they didn't catch that one. There was another math error (I can't remember exactly what it was anymore) and a human model of a double helix that looked nothing like a double helix. Oh yeah, and the movie was really bad too.
[But it's always fun to watch Drew Barrymore -- agr]
From: Joel Wolf
Date: Fri, 18 Sep 1998 16:19:44 -0400
I've enjoyed showing people your 'mathematics in the movies' web page for some time now. One question (which you've probably been asked before): Don't you want to include 'Presumed Innocent', where the wife (and murderer in the movie) is a mathematician? She doesn't say much about her work, and what she does say sounds hokey, but what the hey -- a mathematician/murderer always rings true these days and sounds appropriate for your page.
BTW, I believe some of the graduate students in the Harvard Mathematics department were responsible for coaching Jill Clayburgh on the finer points of the snake lemma before she shot that movie. [It's My Turn] I was an assistant prof there at the time, and my memory has faded. I could probably ask some of my other Harvard pals ... about this if it is of interest. I'm reasonably sure that this happened...
Keep up the good work.
Hi Arnold: Your "math in the movies" web page is really cool. I printed it out and hung it on my office door; we have a competition for the coolest door in our little hallway of the math department.
I am actually emailing you to say;
"What about Presumed Innocent?"
The wife did it, right after she got her math Ph.D!! Another example of MATH KILLS!
I'll be looking for the update!
Date: Mon, 28 Sep 1998
From: Mark Daniel Really enjoyed your Math in the Movies page.
I think I might have a suggestion for an addition --"Presumed
Innocent" starring Harrison Ford, around 1990. This is a thriller.
Ford's wife is a graduate student -- I think mathematics, but it
might be computer science. The math is not a prominent, but it might
be worth a mention.
Date: Mon, 25 Jan 1999
From: "David G. Cantor" The movie "Presumed Innocent" starring Harrison Ford contains a math sequence which I believe is appropriate for your web page. Ford plays a deputy DA originally assigned to investigate the murder of a woman who had been his mistress. Later he was charged with the murder of his mistress. His wife, played by Bonnie Bedelia, is an Assistant Professor of mathematics. We see her giving a lecture in mathematics. It is a legit lecture. Presumably, this was to show that she was intelligent and had a cold calculating personality.
Hi, There was a movie released in about the mid 80's entitled
"Real Genius." The main character in this film was "Chris
Knight" portrayed by Val Kilmer. There is a scene or two which seems
to be along the lines of what you may be looking for. Give it a look
if you haven't already, I think it's pretty funny even if it isn't
really grounded in reality.
From: Mark Lucas
Date: Fri, 14 May 1999
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Humorous exploration of the concepts of fate and destiny.
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exist in a world in which the normal rules of probability and expectation are simply not operating." The play opens with a coin toss game in which the coin has come up heads 85 times in a row. Rosencrantz thinks its a new record, while Guildenstern is 'worried by the implications'. Guildenstern attempts to determine what is going on using logic, while the seemingly slower Rosencrantz is always on the verge of making historic scientific discoveries.
From: Alexander Bernhardt Spiegelman
Date: Sat, 3 Feb 2001
...As with anything by Tom Stoppard, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" ends up incorporating all sorts of mathematical logic and philosophy. There are also a series of great scenes that were not, to my knowledge, in the play, where Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) seems about to stumble upon some landmark result in classical physics. I can't wait until they make a film version of "Arcadia".
I recently discovered your page about math in the movies. I would like to suggest the movie "Run, Lola, Run" (Sony Pictures, 1998). This was originally produced in German ("Lola Rennt"). This movie is closely related to the book "Inequalities for Stochastic Processes: How to Gamble If You Must" by Lester E. Dubins and L. J. Savage, (ASIN: 0486632830) especially the first chapter and the material on "bold play". This book was published in the 1960s. It is out of print, but can be found in libraries. (The library at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center has two copies.)
This book is considered a classic in its field. This book provides a serious treatment of the mathematics of gambling. Both authors were university math professors. The late L. J. Savage was a math professor at Yale (http://www.vma.bme.hu/mathhist/Mathematicians/Savage.html). Lester Dubins is Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley (http://www.stat.berkeley.edu/brochure/dubins.html).
The book starts out by describing a situation in which one must repay a large debt in a short period of time - or else. The book then goes on (later) to prove that the method of "bold play" is the best solution. The odds of success are low, but the alternatives ("timid play") are much worse. The movie presents the same situation (with longer odds), shows how alternatives lead to catastrophe, then shows the heroine achieving the goal in an obvious demonstration of "bold play" (wagering everything she has on a long shot).
If one is not familiar with the book by Dubins and Savage, or the material presented in the book, this movie must seem pretty strange. If one is familiar with this material, then the whole movie makes a lot more sense. Unfortunately, this connection seems to be not well appreciated. I found no references to this in any of the reviews I have read for this movie.
p.s., I used an IBM 1620 (I think that that is what it was) to calculate model rocket trajectories when I was at MIT in the 1960's. Before that, I used a Burroughs 220 at the University of Dayton, programming in Algol (or "Balgol", Burrough's version of Algol).
The recent movie "Rushmore". At the beginning is a scene where the math teacher poses an extra credit problem, saying even he does not know how to solve it, and then our hero Max solves it, and the class cheers. (It turns out that the scene was a dream where Max imagines himself a good student. In reality he is flunking out.) The problem is:
to find the area of an ellipse using an integral. If you watch carefully, you can see most of the solution that Max writes on the chalkboard.
From: paddy murphy
Date: Fri, 3 Nov 2000
The film Rushmore has a little bit of math in it,the main character having a day dream solving ,I think, an equation of an ellipse.
I enjoyed reading your page,thanks
Date: Mon, 17 Jul 2000
From: Joe Keane
>How do they know when they're all gone? They counted them first, silly.
I don't know that it's worth a comment in your page, but in the
Private Ryan, which is just great generally, there's a
similar confrontation and it's a point that the protagonists get an
accurate count of the things coming at them.
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 1997
From: Michael Schwern Wonderful page!
I have a suggestion... "The Dot and the Line" an MGM cartoon about a line who has a crush on a Dot, but the Dot is in love with the free-wheeling squiqqle. The Line wins her over with a demonstration of geometric shapes. I remember watching it in high school Calculus class. Its in the IMDb. "Donald in Mathmagic Land" is another I remember watching in school. An old Disney flick. Donald Duck does a great explaination of trigonometry using a game of billards.
"Battle of the Worlds" I believe involved Claude Reins doing some calculus and the classic line "I have one advantage over all of you! Calculus!"
"Rain Man" Oh! How could you forget _Rain Man_? "Closet Cases of the Nerd Kind" a parody of "Close Encounter" where the alien message is "3.14159265358979323". "2001" the dimensions of the Monolith, 1:4:9... though that might have been only in the book, can't remember. "The Fugitive" discussing how far a man can run and searching a circle with said radius.
"Clue" at the end when they try to figure out how many bullets were fired. "1 plus 1 plus 2 plus 1".
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" has the alien visitor correcting an equation laden blackboard.
I'll think of more. :)
Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2000
From: Justin McGuire
I was impressed by your collection, but there was one item I felt was missing.
There is a Simpsons episode (I think it was one of the Halloween ones) where Homer travels into "The Third Dimension" using CGI. When he was in a computer-generated world, there were lots of mathematical things in the background, including an (incorrect) counterexample to Fermat's Last Theorem and lots of other equations and geometric figures. There is one point where he accidentally creates a black hole, and the first thing that gets sucked in is the equation for the critical density of a black hole.
I really enjoyed the episode and I thought it would make a worthy addition to your page.
Keep up the good work.
From: The Owl
Date: Thu, 29 Mar 2001
Well, not quite a movie, but rather a sitcom: The Simpsons. Homer is transformed into the 3rd dimension, you can see the ever popular e^(pi * i) = -1
From: Layla Layden
Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998
In "Smilla's Sense of Snow" (1995), Julia Ormond's character (Smilla) is a mathematician. In the romantic dinner scene with Gabriel Burne, she gives a fairly detailed descripition of the way mathematicians view the world. Definitely a scene worth watching if you're a math fiend.
Date: Fri, 10 Apr 1998
From: John McCleary
I am sure you have gotten this suggestion, but please don't forget
Smilla's Sense of Snow.
What a great math monologue!
In the middle of the movie, Smilla's Sense of Snow, Smilla gives a
soliloquy on the analogy between the development of numbers and
personal relations---it ends in the Date: Wed, 3 Dec 1997
From: Peter Kahn
Date: Wed, 3 Dec 1997 ...
One movie that you did not mention contains a brief vignette about mathematics: Smilla's Sense of Snow. This is a dark thriller in which the heroine (Smilla), a Danish refugee from Iceland, seeks to find the reasons for the death of a young child that she reluctantly (at first) befriended. There is a scene in which he wants her to read to him, and she responds by reading to him from a geometry book, expecting him to leave. He surprises her by liking it. It turns out that mathematics has been one of her main interests/passions, and she explains why in somewhat poetic terms. By the way, it's a good movie (and even better book). m of mathematical constructs and is a pretty good precis of Landau's development of the real number system. Oh, and it is a fine movie too.
Love your site.
Wanted to chip in with my favorite: Solaris, dir by Andrei Tarkovsky. Book by S. Lem.
Scientist joins band of researchers in orbiting station around mysterious planet. Several deaths on board. Scientist (physicist-psychologist??) experiences strange goings-ons, and perhaps solves the mystery, I think by projecting the results of his own personal experiences in response to the planet's probings into the planet itself. A movie about healing, perception, role of sciences, nature of understanding and life. Not so easy to summarise.
Tarkovsky movies irritate many but to me are the movie equivalent of Dostoevsky-Tolstoy novels. Lem's books too combine science and fiction in a way that creates its own genre of "science based fiction" not "sciency fiction," as is the norm.
Thank you for your math in the movies page.
On at least one ocassion in "The Mirror Has Two Faces" we saw Jeff Bridges' library. What I found curious was that he had no Springer-Verlag books. Springer-Verlag has published a large number of math books and they all have large expanses extremely bright yellow on their covers. Even if you can't read the title a viewer of the movie could notice one on a shelf of books.
Now that I am writing this I recall a scene in "Little Man Tate" were Fred(?) Tate is asked an algebra problem. We see some animations which I took to be his thoughts while he was trying to solve the problem. Unfortunately the animations were of random digits that had nothing to do with the problem. The upshot was that I thought he was completely confused by what was not a particularily hard problem. When he came up with the right answer I wondered where it came from.
Thanks for jogging my memory to recall various scenes of math in the movies.
'Stand & Deliver'
It should be at your local video library
Date: Wed, 11 Jun 1997
From: Don Coudert
There are a couple of Star Trek Next Generation shows with references to mathematics:
"The Royale" In the opening scene, we find Captain Picard in his chambers trying to solve Fermat's Last Theorem Pretty good explanation of the theorem.
"Data Lore" Data's evil twin, Lore, is tricked into revealing that he knows more than he pretends when Commander Riker states "... and the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle..." and Lore finishes the expression.
".... Some people use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support rather than for illumination."
Check us out at
Pythagoras' Greatest Hit: http://k12s.phast.umass.edu/~dcoudert/hypsong
From: Alvin H. Belt
Date: Sun, 10 Oct 1999
Hi, I wrote you before. Your page mentions the Star Trek episode "Wolf in the Fold". There was a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "The Royale" in which Captain Picard is shown trying to solve Fermat's Last Theorem with pencil and paper the way Fermat would have done it had he really done it. There is also some discussion about it. The episode was shot before Wiles' proof, but it still makes sense.
Also, maybe how about the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" in which the Scarecrow is given a diploma and spits out The Pythagorean Theorem- incorrectly? He says that the square of the hypotenuse is greater than the sum of the squares.... I once read this mentioned in a math teachers' journal which gave the Scarecrow credit for being right in a non-Euclidean geometry. Sorry this is so long.
Date: Tue, 17 Mar 1998
From: Dan Kalman
Subject: Jean Luc Picard solves FLT Hi, I seem to remember reading somewhere that in one of the Star Trek movies, Jean Luc Picard claims to have just finished proving Fermat's Last Theorem -- as an exercise. I am trying to track this scene down. I hoped to find it on your Math at the Movies page, but struck out. Have you heard anything about this?
Date: Wed, 1 Oct 1997
From: Michael Somos
Subject: ST:TNG and FLT Arnold G. Reinhold, I just found your "Math in the Movies" (TM) sites and noticed you have a ST:TOS reference where Spock asks computer to compute "pi to the last digit". I don't see the reference to the ST:TNG episode where Fermat's Last Theorem is mentioned twice as being an unsolved problem in "The Royale" if I remember correctly. Shalom,
Saw your page about math in the movies. There's a minor continuity problem in "Straw Dogs" that only deserves mention because you bring up the subtitle discrepancy in "Antonia's Line." It's probably only noticeable in the original theatrical geometry of the film (the pan-and-scan versions shown on TV probably aren't wide enough for it) but after D. Hoffman's wife changes the second operator from a plus to a minus, the part of the equation we see on screen looks like this: [expression] + [expression] - [expression] Then, Hoffman looks at the equation and it looks like this:
[expression] - [expression] - [expression]
Then, Hoffman corrects it, and the final equation we see is this:
[expression] - [expression] + [expression]
See the problem? Somewhere in the filming, the first plus *also* got changed to a minus but it was never corrected. Either that, or the first operator was supposed to be a minus in the first place but was accidentally a plus in the first shot. The wife only changed the second plus to a minus, so I can only assume that some stagehand or whatever made a goof, resulting in this continuity error. I normally don't pick nits, but math is supposed to be precise, eh? :)
Anyhow, this obviously doesn't merit attention on your page, but I thought you might like to know. Of course, I could have mis-observed, but I saw the movie this Wednesday so it's fresh in my mind.
In the classic sci-fi film The Day The Earth Stood Still alien MichaelpRennie helps Professor Sam Jaffe with a rather long mathematical problemp he is working on the blackboard when he is not present. The help convincespJaffe that Rennie is the real thing.
Date: Sat, 06 Dec 1997
From: Dean Hansen
Don't forget the film "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal (1954?).
In it there's a brief scene in which the space visitor (played by Rennie) corrects a problem in quantum celestial mechanics on a blackboard by making a few discrete adjustments here and there.
It might be fun to freeze frame the scene on a VCR just to see if it's a real problem.
From: Karen Zimmerman
Date: Mon, 5 Jan 1998
What about "The Day The Earth Stood Still" where Klaatu corrects the mathematical equation of the "professor" ?
Date: Fri, 20 Mar 1998
From: Mike Wilson
Subject: Math scene in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"
Early in the movie, Klatu, the alien ambassador, visits the office of a famous physicist. A long, inconclusive calculation in celestial mechanics is displayed on the blackboard (the physicist is out at the time). Klatu leaves a suggestion on the board and leaves. He returns later and finds the physicist working out the hint he left. They have this (approximate) conversation:
Klatu: I thought you would have solved it by now. You substitute this term here---and then the answer follows by variation of parameters.
Physicist: That gives the first-order terms. But what about the higher orders?
Physicist: You've tested this theory?
Klatu [shrugs]: It works to get me between planets.
Don't miss the scene at the beginning where the two doctors discuss Klatu's health!
From: Bill Egalois
Date: Sun, 27 Dec 1998
In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a sci-fi classic from c. 1950 there is a scene where the alien, Klaatu, examines some equations scrawled on a blackboard by an "einstein-like" sam jaffe [?] and a later exchange between the two of them on the solution of the blackboard problem that may be worth mentioning on your page. [the return email on this msg is a fake, i usually use this copy of outlook for posting on newsgroups and I forgot how to change my identity back to the real one sorry]
From: Bklyn Mario
Date: Fri, 27 Feb
Subject: The Day the Slide Rule Stood Still
As an English teacher who abhors math--Why else would I teach English?--but loves film, I rushed to your site a great deal faster than I ever solved even the most basic equation in high school. That having been said, I offer the following:
The Day the Earth Stood Still
(Michael Rennie), Klaatu saunters into the study of scientist/mathematician , (Sam Jaffe), Dr. Barnhardt, and, faster than a high school math teacher could say permutation, scrawls the final, essential element to a highly complex morass of equations.
It is--in my number-dumb eyes--a masterpiece.
I'm glad to see that you mentioned the Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician. I saw this about two to three years ago. There's not much mathematics in it per se (except for one classroom scene) but a fair amount about the man's relationship with his graduate students. It's esssentially a true story about a talented Italian mathematician whose memories of his experiences and activities in fascist Italy during The War continue to haunt him, drive him to alcohol, and eventually suicide. Not very cheerful but a powerful movie about a man who took life and his work very seriously.
From: Byrnes, Graham
Date: Thu, 12 Aug 1999
Love the page. I think I saw "The Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician" on TV a couple of years ago: if it *was* the film I saw, it was the story of Majorana (of Majorana spinor fame in math physics). No mention of spinors in the film, but there are scenes of the child Majorana calculating square roots of large (square) numbers to entertain his mother's friends while hiding under the table.
Later he arrives in Rome and has an integral-evaluating duel with Enrico Fermi.
My favourite scene is when Fermi goes to register a new course he wants to teach. The clerk opens a large book, scans down a list and inform Fermi that this subject area (possibly sub-atomic particle physics) does not exist, therefore he cannot teach a course on it.
The film is probably more about Fermi than Majorana, who pops up occasionally to make some unspecified brilliant contribution to Fermi's program. Although my memories of it are pretty thin, I'd say Maths: ***, Film ****.
Also, don't forget the UK TV series "A very peculiar practice", a surreal series about a GP in a UK university health service. The maths link is that the hero shares an appartment with a Burmese maths grad student working in chaos theory. Very little maths, but there is an episode where the student's supervisor tries to steal his work. :-)
Date: Sun, 7 May 2000
From: Nicola Arcozzi
...About "Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician", of the Italian Martone, I really think it is a beautiful film, with sound calculus on the blackboards and, in couple of scenes, some of Caccioppoli's formulas about sets of finite perimeter. Also, there is a realistic and amusing portrayal of italian university life (see the oral exams, for instance). University of Bologna Dept. of Math.
Another odd ball math movie stars John Lithgow who plays a crazed physicist enriching plutonium via a copper vapor laser (actually true) anyway a couple of decent scences when a young wiz kid shows up and out does the doc with some "off the top of his head half-life equations" he gets it right actually with the generic half life formula. I can't recall the name of the flic however. But the premise is the wiz kid steals the high enriched plut build himself an A-bomb just to get some attention...On your math scale judging by some of the other movies would be about a ****+ Sorry I can't recall the title but I would say atleast 10 years old...
[The Manhattan Project (1986)?? http://us.imdb.com/Title?0091472 -- agr]
The classroom scenes are interesting for the stuff on the blackboards in the background: I forget some of them, but I do remember that in his calculus classroom one found
I enjoyed your web page very much.
The protagonist of Mamet's new film, "The Spanish Prisoner," is a mathematician inventor. There are numerous (if fleeting) images of calculations which look like Riemannian Topologies, etc -- I'll need the video in freeze frame to be sure ;--?
Wow, cool page! By the way, though, I felt obligated to point out one more classic movie with math: The Wizard of Oz (1939). At the end, when the Wizard gives a diploma to the Scarecrow to prove that he has a brain, the Scarecrow recites the Pythagorean Theorem. Alas, he gets it wrong, which I suppose says something about the value of a diploma, right?
I am assured by the FAQ for the movie, which I found at
that he says "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isoceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side."
It's not major, but hey, it's there. :-)
Date: Fri, 31 Mar 2000
From: Loren Gaither
In the Wizard of Oz when the strawman gets his brain he recites something like this - "The sum of the square roots of two sides of a right triangle is equal to the square root of the hypotenuse." That isn't the exact quote, but, if I remember correctly, it is close. I always wondered whether the writer of the script knew he was wrong and it was his way of saying the wizard was a hoax, or did the writer not realize that the Pythagorean Theorem doesn't say that? Or was there something that I missed?
Subject: Scarecrow Gets a Brain
Date: Sat, 6 Mar 1999
You said you weren't interested in math mumbo jumbo, but my geometry students have a good time watching the portion of The Wizard of Oz when Scarecrow gets his brain. It's meant to sound like the Pythagorean Theorem and my students' task is to analyze what is wrong and why. Just a thought.
Nice page. But you missed the classic!!! The Wizard of Oz.
The Tin Man, when the Wizard gives him a diploma for the degree of Th.D., shows off his new brains by reciting the Pythagorean Theorem VERY FAST.
a few more:
The Pirates of Penzance (Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury and Linda Ronstadt), where the "very model of a modern" Major General boasts of knowing "many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse."
The Seven Percent Solution. Holmes (Nigel Williamson) alludes to Moriarty's (Lawrence Olivier) prowess at mathematics, as evidenced by his famous article on the Binomial Theorem. Moriarty, denying this, says, "What's left to say about the Binomial Theorem at this late date?" (about 1895) A
Also, there was a movie about ten years ago, whose name escapes me at the moment, about a (fanciful) evening when Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein and Joe McCarthy keep bumping into one another in New York. The high point was where Marilyn Monroe, played by Theresa Russell, explained relativity theory to Einstein, played by somebody I don't remember because Theresa Russell was playing Marilyn Monroe. She used a toy car, a flashlight, and some other stuff. Not quite pure mathematics, but as I recall pretty accurate.
From: David Mosher
Subject: Tom & Viv
Date: Wed, 9 Sep 1998 0
Here's a suggestion for possible inclusion in your very nice "Math in the Movies" page:
During the opening credits of Tom & Viv, there is a brief scene depicting Bertrand Russell, played by Nickolas Grace, lecturing to a small group of students, including title character T.S. Eliot, played by Willem Dafoe. The blackboard behind Russell bears what might well be an excerpt from "Principia Mathematica".
I dunno, it may be entirely pseudo-math (or worse, physics), but what about the scene in Torn Curtain where "rocket scientists" Paul Newman and Ludwig Donath play "dueling equations" on a chalkboard? You can see some of the equations in the movie, but I've never bothered to see if they are real.
Date: Fri, 23 Nov 2001
From: David Chillingworth
I haven't seen it, but I am told that the Hitchcock movie Torn Curtain has a scene where a mathematician/scientist stuns the audience by his penetrating insight in figuring out the secret formula that sin2x =2sinxcosx or something equally trivial. Maybe an example of ineptitute in earlier days ...
it's nice to see there are more maths in movies than I might have expected (epsilon to a large n). I was surprised, however, because the classic "Torn curtain" was not among the movies; in spite there is no true maths in there, the core of the plot is a sciencist who becomes a spy to get a theorem.
Date: Thu, 16 Oct 1997
From: Simon Plouffe
I think I have found the movie I was looking for:
The Torn Curtain , a Hitchkock film with Paul Newman,
somewhere in the film there is a scene where Paul Newman draws a Pi on the sand with his feet to another man standing by a door as a sign.
Also, there are a number of formulas that appear on a blackboard and Paul Newman (the fake spy) has to memorize them.
I just visited your site and found it an enjoyable read.
A movie that I deals with math to a degree (at least I always find myself doing a few quick computations when I watch it) is, "Trading Places" starring Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis and many other fine actors. The scene is near the end, when the 2 "victims" of the Duke brothers (Murphy and Ackroyd) "get even" on the commodity floor. The sequence of them selling futures at the outset of the day's trading and then reversing their position near the end leads me to try to compute their total haul.
There also is the "stake" that Jamie Lee Curtis and the butler character (don't know the name) give to the guys.
There is a little math going on, but I guess it's the working of the commodities pit that is shown. Don't know if it's accurate either, but I do try to figure out (by watching the price fluctuations and making a few guesstimates about the rate of their trading) to calculate what they might have made.
Perhaps someone who is a trader could put some numbers together and a little chronology to explain what's going on there exactly. And perhaps I might get an idea about how much they made.
I give the movie an unqualified 4 stars outta 4. The math may not qualify for your page, but it is unavoidable for some of us not to consider what is actually going on there.
> (It seems there was a TV docudrama Unabomber: The True
> Anybody seen it?)
I happened to catch a bit at the end. Feds show up at TK's shack:
Fed: "We have a warrant to search the premises."
TK: "Fine, I'll just read it first."
Fed: "It's seventy pages!"
TK: "I got time."
Fed: "Well we don't." (about to push in) "Anything dangerous in there we should know about?"
TK just grins.
Fed: "Okay boys, be alert for boobytraps."
It stuck in my mind because of the bit with the warrant. How is the searchee to know if the warrant is valid, without examining it? It's not *his* fault if the thing is inconveniently long. It could be seventy pages of bluff.
In the movie, Volcano, with Tommy Lee Jones, they lower a video camera down into a subway tunnel. The lava traveling through the tunnel is viewed for several seconds before it hits and dissolves the camera. In the van on their way to where the subway tunnel ends, they must manually figure out how much time they have before the lava will burst through the surface by counting the number of seconds the lava travels through one tunnel section, estimating how long the section is, and then converting the feet per seconds to miles per minute.
(A nice little Algebra problem and they don't even have a calculator)
Hope this is useful!
About 25-30 years ago I saw a reference to a movie called "Zorn's Lemma". I think it was shown as part of a foreign film festival at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). I saw the reference in an ad in the New York Times.
Have you ever heard of it ? I don't know if it had anything to do with Zorn's lemma or just borrowed the name for the title. I have never seen a reference since then and I can't remember which country it was from.
[Anyone seen it? --agr]
[I am sending this for a friend who hasn't entered the computer age yet]
There is at least a third war movie in which the heroes know how many of the enemy they'll be facing. In Zulu (1964), Stanley Baker knows that Company C of the South Wales Borderers will be fighting 4,000 Zulu.
Thanks to all the people who sent in their comments and suggestions!