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 minds, you may be asking yourself what a movie about dinosaurs wreaking modern day havoc has to do with mathematics. In response to this, I turn your attention to the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum. Dr. Ian Malcolm is a mathematician, although he self-importantly refers to himself as a "Chaotician," i.e. his research is in Chaos Theory.

Putting that aside for a moment, let us take a look at this portrayal of a mathematician. Does the film do a disservice to those of us in the profession, or does it raise us up, so that we can walk on mountains?

If you have lived under a rock for the past 15 years,
here is a (poor quality) trailer for the film.

Let's take a look at some of these stereotypes.

- People who are good at math are socially awkward.

While Dr. Malcolm certainly has his fair share of idiosyncrasies, I believe a rational person would find it difficult to label him socially awkward. During the course of the film, he proves himself to be quite a conversationalist, and is not shy about voicing his opinions, or interacting with people he has just met.

Ian Malcolm with his stunner shades on.

Not only is Dr. Malcolm able to hold his own in a conversation, but he is also way more stylish than most portrayals of mathematicians in pop culture. Sporting both a pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket, there is no doubt that Dr. Malcolm has a keen eye for fashion, and the means to support his tastes.

Perhaps most importantly, at one point the owner of the park, John Hammond, refers to Dr. Malcolm in the following way when discussing personnel that have been brought to the island: "I bring it scientists; you bring a rock star." While I believe this is meant to be an insult, it is more constructive to interpret this as an affirmation of the inevitability of a future utopian society in which mathematicians are given the adoration reserved today only for rock stars. The film captures the essence of this utopia quite nicely, except for the bit about the dinosaurs running around and eating people; this is not (thus far) a part of the vision.

In short, Dr. Malcolm is quite far from being socially awkward. +1.

- Male mathematicians have a crippling fear of talking to women.

A strong argument could be made that this stereotype is really more of a subset of the stereotype already discussed, but because of the emphasis this film places on Dr. Malcolm's gift of gab with women, I feel it is worth mentioning here.

In several scenes we witness how Dr. Malcolm has no reservations about spitting some serious game to females, even in front of other people. Rather than letting mathematics restrict his ability to talk to the opposite sex, Dr. Malcolm uses mathematics as an opening to get women to talk with him. In doing so, he illustrates one of the greatest unsung properties of mathematics: when used with the proper care, it is a powerful aphrodisiac. Kudos to you, Jurassic Park, for daring to shed light on this important facet of mathematics. +1.

Dr. Malcolm is looking for love.

Now, what about the bad? Unfortunately, there is plenty of bad, most of it coming from taking the good stuff too far. Let's look back at the stereotypes already mentioned.

- People who are good at math are socially awkward.

Sure, Dr. Malcolm may be socially adept, but he's also kind of a jerk. I say this not because of his criticisms of the park, many of which seem quite valid. Instead, I base this conclusion on the fact that he's a little full of himself. From the fact that he wears sunglasses at night (an action that would be excusable given an appropriate medical condition, but since he later loses his sunglasses, we can safely assume this is not the case), to the way he refers himself as a "Chaotician" (come on, seriously?), it is clear that Dr. Malcolm is too pompous to serve as a proper mathematics ambassador to the rest of the world.

So abrasive is this mathematician that at one point, one character refers to him by saying, "I really hate that man." Is this what we want people to say about mathematicians? Perhaps, but only because they envy us. Certainly this does not seem to be the case here. -1.

- Male mathematicians have a crippling fear of talking to women.

Although Dr. Malcolm evidences an ability to use mathematics in his courtship rituals, this commendable feat is overshadowed by the fact that he uses his forces for evil, and not for good. The only time we see him channeling the mack within is when he is putting the moves on somebody else's girlfriend. This is, of course, a universal party foul, and one that does not reflect well upon mathematicians. Especially when the other man is a more likable character. -1.

In summary, this film really doesn't do much for the perception of mathematicians one way or the other. While Dr. Malcolm is more suave and sophisticated than most people come to expect from their mathematicians, he is also in love with the sound of his own voice, and potentially a home wrecker. In the end, some may be able to look past the character's shortcomings, and some may not.

Does the situation improve in the 1997 follow-up, The Lost World? Perhaps, although I don't really want to sit through the film to find out.

Psst ... did you know I have a brand new website full of interactive stories? You can check it out here!

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