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Math in the Movies: Pi

In 1998, Darren Aronofsky shot to success with his independent film, Pi. The film was widely heralded as an excellent film, and earned Mr. Aronofsky the 1998 Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival. He then went on to direct the similarly successful Requiem for a Dream, followed by the less well-received 2006 film The Fountain. His latest film, the Mickey Rourke vehicle called The Wrestler, opens soon.

The story of Pi centers on a mathematician named Max Cohen, a self professed number theorist – although he never specifies what qualifies him for this title – who spends his days analyzing the stock market and wiping the blood off of his upper lip (I know what you’re thinking, and no, he’s not a cage fighter – that would’ve made the film way better). As he comes closer to “unlocking the secrets” of the stock market (whatever that means), several interested parties begin to come out of the woodwork, all with their own self-interest at heart.

From a math perspective, how does this film stack up? Unfortunately, the answer is poorly. Those wishing to learn some math from their pop culture would be better off with an episode of Sesame Street, or perhaps some School House Rock. In fact, pretty much any math pop culture reference you can think of would probably fare better.

Let’s take a closer look at the stereotypes propagated by this film.

A trailer, for those of you fortunate enough to have not seen this film.
- Mathematicians are really good at calculating things in their heads.

One of our first introductions to Max comes early in the film, when he is leaving his apartment and a young Asian girl approaches him with a calculator. She proceeds to ask him to compute products and quotients of large numbers in his head – things like 421 x 121. Of course, since Max is a mathematician, he has no trouble computing these products. He does it just as quickly as she can type the numbers into her calculator!

As I’ve said before, this isn’t at all a realistic depiction of mathematicians. While there are certainly computational savants amongst us, it is just as common, if not more so, to encounter a mathematician who will willingly admit that he or she is no good at computation. Many mathematicians even take pride in such assertions. Mathematics is as much about doing multiplication in your head as cooking is about opening jars with your bare hands. -1.

- To be successful in math, you have to complete your Ph.D. at an extremely young age.

Max Cohen published his first paper at age 16, and completed his Ph.D. by the time he was 20. While this is certainly not unheard of in academia, the idea that you must be young to be successful is one that is especially pervasive in mathematics.

The problem with this stereotype is that it tends to discourage people from studying mathematics if they are firm in their beliefs that math is solely a young man’s game. In pop culture, most people who are good at math are portrayed as having completed their degrees at a very young age, but in reality these people are the exceptions, not the rules. In mathematics, as Aaliyah will tell you, it is becoming more and more common that age ain’t nothing but a number. -1.

Don’t subscribe to this propaganda: mathematicians enjoy a good samosa just as much as everyone else.

- People who are good at math are socially awkward.

In an early scene, Max is busy looking at numbers on his computer screen (because he’s a number theorist, remember?!) when someone comes knocking on his door. On the other side is his attractive neighbor, who not only sports a British accent, but also has brought him samosas.

Any normal person would welcome such an act with kindness and gratitude. Of course, Max is not a normal person – he is a mathematician. This must explain why he is rude to this woman, both in this scene and later on in the film, despite the fact that she is not only kind to him, but is also cute. That she puts up with his abuse is simply a testament to the power of seduction that comes with studying mathematics, whether intentional or not. -1.

- Number Theory is synonymous with numerology.

Throughout the film, Max stares at numbers. He watches stock prices fluctuate. He prints out random strings of integers from his super old computer and stares at them for long periods of time. Sometimes he even draws circles on the newspaper and shows that he is a genius at math because he can recall the formulas for the circle’s area and circumference.

One notable omission in all of this is that at no point does Max do anything even remotely resembling number theory. If anything, Max’s research would more aptly fall into the realm of financial mathematics, with maybe a splash of ergodic theory thrown into the mix.

At one point Max is so fixated on trying to find a pattern in his work that his mentor, Sol Robeson, tells him, “As soon as you discard scientific rigor, you’re no longer a mathematician; you’re a numerologist.” Coming from a film that depicts nothing BUT numerology, this is somewhat of a surprising statement. -1.

- To be good at math, you must be insane.

Let’s be honest – Max is a total whack job. Not only does he hate it when people deliver him fresh samosas, but he’s obsessive, paranoid (perhaps justifiably so), and irritable. He fantasizes about poking his brains, and at one point he shaves his head and begins drawing on his skull with indelible marker, or so we are led to believe. At least the connotations with phrenology pair nicely with the numerological gobbledygook that permeates the rest of the film.

As I’ve said before (and will no doubt say again), you can be good at math without being crazy. Being crazy is just the frosting on the cake. I kid, I kid. -1.

- The number π provides an active area of research for mathematicians.

Max’s aforementioned mentor guides Max throughout the film, and often during their discussions, Sol hearkens back to his own youth, and the amazing math he did while researching π.

Sadly, Sol is a century or two late if he expects us to believe he could make a career studying a single number. The whole idea is absurd. I have not heard of a single mathematician who has made a lucrative career studying π, and I think you’d be just as hard pressed to find one. Saying that a mathematician’s research concerns π would be like saying an English literature professor’s research concerns the word “banana.”

The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that Sol is a fraud. This is further evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t know what density is (weight over volume? Come on, dude). Perhaps Sol was only hanging out with Max to bask in his numerological genius. No doubt his time would’ve been better spent elsewhere. -1.

In summary, this movie scores a whopping -6. This is a pretty poor showing. Sorry, Mr. Aronofsky – if it’s any consolation, I do want to see your new film. Hopefully you are more of an authority on washed up wrestlers than you are on mathematicians.

  • nate

    Mathematicians are really good at calculating things in their heads.
    matt lane… check.

    To be successful in math, you have to complete your Ph.D. at an extremely young age.
    matt lane… in progress.

    People who are good at math are socially awkward.
    7 words: craigslist is the way of the future.

    Number Theory is synonymous with numerology.
    matt lane > max.

    To be good at math, you must be insane.
    matt lane… is friends with us, so check!

    The number π provides an active area of research for mathematicians.
    i’d rather have you figure out how 2+2=5, which is just as useless as research for the number π.

    loved the post. :D

  • Chris

    As a mathematician who loves this movie I will have to disagree with you.

    Mathematicians are really good at calculating things in their heads.

    Not usually, but there have been examples in history of mathematicians who were not only great at research but also great mental calculators. E.g. A. Aitken:

    To be successful in math, you have to complete your Ph.D. at an extremely young age.

    That is not the message of the film. It is simply the case for the mathematician portrayed in the film. He is supposed to be a genius. It is essential to the plot that he is one of the exceptional mathematicians.

    People who are good at math are socially awkward.

    Also not what the movie says. Usually they are not socially awkward. But this particular mathematician is. And I personally see nothing wrong with it. If someone is socially awkward and isolated but has mathematics as a talent and escape from his suffering, why not? Who would stand in the way of such a person to fulfill his passion and dream just because he is socially awkward. Luckily, in mathematics (still EVEN TODAY) results count in the end.

    Number Theory is synonymous with numerology.

    Nope. It’s not and it’s not what the movie says. Yeah he stares at numbers etc.. But he also stares at very complicated code. A number theorist who is interested in this kind of question naturally has to write code. It’s applied research in a sense and mathematicians are just as capable of creating algorithms and write code as they are capable of doing pure mathematical research.
    And his doodling on the train is just that: doodling… Mathematicians are allowed to doodle and think about philosophy. And that’s all he does there. I really hated it when reviewers got this wrong. He is not doing “research” in this particular scene.

    To be good at math, you must be insane.

    Well.. most mathematicians are neither particularly clever nor particularly imaginative (just looked who gets hired these days… HAHA), nor creative.. they still do some decent work. They may need 10^(1 + x) co-authors to get anything started (not that collaboration is bad in itself.. but 3 or more co-authors, come one…), but they get something done. They are not insane either. But there are also special individuals. Who are so great because they’re minds are so different! And it’s beautiful!

    The number π provides an active area of research for mathematicians.

    At least \pi pops up everywhere in research, often unexpectedly. And there are open questions still about it. Normality for example.

  • Matt

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one, Chris. I appreciate your candor, but I still can’t stand this film, and stand by my claim that it does more harm than good to the perception of people who make a living as mathematicians.

  • Keith Terrill

    Yep, this movie is not as good as I was lead to believe it was… I am not much of a mathematician. I do not do calculations in my head… I use computer power for that. I am not crazy… though others may disagree. I am intrigued with Kabbalah and Numerology… enough to know that some of the Hebrew was in error… and that it is not what I would consider math. I have a college degree in Math/Computers… but it is only an Associates from a Community College. I may be awkward in society… but perhaps that is what makes me such a good salesman.

    Well… so far… I am not impressed with this movie. It always bothers me when something that is so central a part of the movie can not be fact checked with experts to help make it believable. (Don’t even start me on movies about chess… that can not play the game.)