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Math in the Movies: Hodgepodge Edition

Most of the time I write about films where math takes a central role, but it is just as often the case that mathematics is at work in more of a supporting capacity. There are many examples of this phenomenon, even if we restrict our attention to movies that are fairly recent. To catalog each such instance would no doubt be fairly time consuming, but thankfully someone has already begun the task. It comforts me to know that I am not the only one who takes pleasure in seeing mathematics on the big screen. Last week the Boston Globe ran an article that discusses the appearance of mathematics in a variety of recent films. In addition to mentioning the recent work on zombie dynamics, the article also discusses the link to mathematics as found in films like Casino Royale, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and The Dark Knight.

. . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Hodgepodge Edition

Math in the Movies: District 9

In continuing with the theme of discussing movies before I see them, I’d like to say a few words about the upcoming film District 9. You can see the trailer below, if you haven’t heard of it (although if you live in LA it’s difficult to plead ignorance, since the viral marketing has been on full blast all summer).

It’s natural to ask what a film about aliens living in South African refugee camps has to do with mathematics. Aside from the obvious (no doubt any intergalactic species must have a good working knowledge of mathematics), I’d like to point you to an aspect of the marketing campaign for the film that’s featured on the official website. If you look in the lower right, you will see a link to a site that immediately aroused my interest: Maths From Outer Space. The purpose of this website is best summarized . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: District 9

Math in the Movies: Revolutionary Road

This past week I watched Revolutionary Road, the Oscar nominated 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a highly dysfunctional couple named the Wheelers, who live in 1950s suburban Connecticut. For those of you who may not have seen this feel-good picture, here’s a trailer:

The trailer doesn’t address the question of what this film has to do with mathematics. The answer lies in the character of John Giving, a “mathematician” played in the film by Michael Shannon (who turned in an Oscar-nominated performance).

We first hear of John Giving from his mother, who informs Mrs. Wheeler that her son has a brilliant mind, as evidenced by his PhD in mathematics, but that he has been institutionalized, and his doctors have suggested that it would be good for him to go out and make some friends. This introduction did not bode well . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Revolutionary Road

Math in the Movies: Up

As many of you are no doubt aware, Pixar’s latest film opens this weekend. I have yet to see the film, so I’m sure I am spoiling nothing by telling you that part of the film involves an old man flying through the sky by means of balloons that are attached to his house.

Do not try this at with your home.

Given that I have yet to see the film, you may wonder how I could possibly hope to connect it to mathematics. Thankfully, I don’t have to – the work has been done for me by Alexis Madrigal over at, who wrote an article discussing the feasibility of using balloons to take to the skies in one’s own home.

His assumptions are that the house weighs roughly 100,000 pounds, and that the balloons are spherically shaped with a diameter of three feet, which may seem large at . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Up

Math in the Movies: Stand and Deliver

During the course of my K-12 math education, I was able to watch Stand and Deliver two times during math class. The first time was in 5th or 6th grade, and during this first viewing I was less inspired by the mathematics than by the stellar performance of Lou Diamond Phillips, whose winning catch phrase “I strangled him, his body’s decomposing in my locker” has stuck with me well into my adult life.

The second time I saw the film was in high school, during the month between the AP exams and summer vacation when teachers are generally a little less rigorous with their lesson plans. Wiser now, I was able to more fully appreciate the mathematics on display in the film. I understood what it was like to sit down for an AP Test, and while I’ve never had Andy Garcia accuse me of cheating, I think I can . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Stand and Deliver

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 . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Pi

Math in the Movies: Superman II

There is a joke in mathematics circles that has become well-known enough to merit its own entry on Wikipedia. This joke is referred to as the Teakettle Principle. Here’s how it goes:

A mathematician and an engineer go into the kitchen one day to make a pot of tea. Finding an empty kettle on the stove, they fill it with water, then turn on the stove and let the water boil, following the usual protocol when making tea.

The next day, the two again decide to make a pot of tea. However, upon entering the kitchen, they find that the kettle on the stove has already been filled with water! Now faced with a new problem, the engineer suggests that they simply heat the water that’s already in the kettle.

“Nonsense!” the mathematician replies. “It would be far simpler to pour the water out and replace the empty kettle on . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Superman II

Math in the Movies: Jurassic Park

Ah, 1993. Andrew Wiles was on the verge of proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. Late night talk show hosts poked fun at our President’s love of McDonald’s. And on June 11th, a little film known as Jurassic Park released to audiences throughout the country.

As it held the top spot for most successful movie of all time for four years (thank you, Titanic), there is no doubt this movie has secured a place in our pop culture heritage. And while it has aged in some respects – science has advanced to the point where it can genetically engineer species that went extinct millions of years ago, but a little girl is still most impressed by the fact that cars on the island come equipped with “interactive CD-ROMs,” for instance – the film still serves up a quintessential example of the 90s summer blockbuster.

If the film is not fresh in your . . . → Read More: Math in the Movies: Jurassic Park