Mathematicians on Film

John_Nash_by_rook_over_hereJohn Forbes Nash died the other day along with his wife in a tragic traffic accident on the highways of New Jersey after returning to the U.S. from Norway where he accepted the Abel Prize for outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics. Nash added the Abel Prize to the prestigious Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to him in 1994.

A bona fide prodigy, Nash earned his PhD by the age of 22, and made his mark in the subject of non-cooperative game theory which represents the real world more accurately than zero-sum game theory. His work was instrumental in advancing models in economics, biology, sociology and logistics. Nash also took on and conquered some truly vexing pure math problems including Hilbert’s 19th Problem on elliptical partial differential equations, and developing breakthroughs in real algebraic manifolds and singularity theory. Hell, he even proved that every abstract Riemannian manifold can be isometrically realized as a sub-manifold of Euclidean space.

But it’s not for these reasons that John Nash became a somewhat household name and merited a front-page obituary in the New York Times. Rather it was his tortured life following the manifestations of schizophrenia in the late 1950s that gave his story color and depth. After Sylvia Nasar’s biography “A Beautiful Mind” was turned into an Oscar-winning movie directed by Ron Howard and starring A-lister Russell Crowe that John Nash rose out of obscurity. That’s how it often works: influential people in the arts and sciences live and die in obscurity unless and until they are resurrected in a feature-length film. That’s not to say Hollywood product accurately represents the subjects they take on, but popular films undoubtedly have the power to undo obscurity. For instance, how widely recognizable would be Antonio Salieri, Charlie Wilson, Billy Beane, Jim Lovell, Erin Brockovich, Charles Van Doren and Alan Turing if not for “Amadeus,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Moneyball,” “Apollo 13,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Quiz Show” and “The Imitation Game” ?

And speaking of “The Imitation Game,” here is further proof that mathematicians can make compelling subjects when their lives contain suitable virtuosity, tragedy and redemption. I previously wrote a blog suggesting a movie featuring Evariste Galois, a rebellious child prodigy who was accepted to university at the ripe old age of 10, and went on to advance the study of group theory before dying in a duel at the age of 21. I also saw that a film featuring Srinivasa Ramanujan is in the works from a script adapted from Robert Kanigel’s book “The Man Who Knew Infinity.” Filming began last summer at Trinity College in Cambridge.


Ramanujan was in many ways the Indian “Will Hunting” – a young man with virtually no training in pure math who developed in relative isolation a remarkable body of work that served to advance the areas of math analysis and number theory. And of course the story wouldn’t be movie-worthy had it not been for the introduction into Ramanujan’s life of the British mathematician G. H. Hardy who “discovered” the young genius and cultivated a long-running relationship. (Sidebar: Jeremy Irons is set to play Hardy, which could possibly turn the film into the story of Hardy-the-hero and his “white man’s burden.”)

What other mathematicians might make the grade to be featured in a film? My nomination: Lady Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, collaborator with the influential inventor Charles Babbage, and perhaps the author of the very first machine program. She’s an unlikely hero whose life story subsequent to her abandonment by Byron was turbulent and fruitful, and in the hands of the right screenwriter could drag her from obscurity to appropriate recognition.


Candidates to play Lady Lovelace: Uma Thurman, Rosamund Pike, Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts. Michelle Williams, Natalie Portman.

John McCain: Warmonger, Idiot or Both?


In a refreshing display of candor, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called out the lameness of the Iraqi army which was routed by ISIS in Ramadi: The Iraqis “were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight and withdrew from the site. That says to me and, I think, to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”

In other words, despite a decade of in-depth involvement by Americans in Iraq and billions spent on equipment and training, the Iraqi army is still unprepared to fight, and probably disinterested in taking over from the Americans. And why should they, as long as the U.S. is around to carry the load and shovel the shit for them. To me, the last thing America should do is further the notion in the Iraqi mind that we will always be there to wipe their asses for them.

But as Carter was excoriating the Iraqi army even as he extolled the success of American-led bombing sorties, nutcase John McCain was calling for direct intervention. He wants to see American troops side-by-side with Iraqi forces on the battlefield to call in specific locations for bombing. Imagine yourself placed in that unenviable position: entrusting your own safety and security in “cooperation” with a bunch of nitwits who simply don’t give a damn.


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