Pursuing a degree in mathematics many years ago, I believe I was the rare student who was truly interested in the lives, and not just in the scribblings of the long-dead mathematicians who advanced axioms, contemplated corrolaries, locked up lemmas, and proved the theorems that kept us math majors up well past bed-time surrounded by crumpled loose leaf and pencil shavings. If I was to be tortured into unraveling dozens of partial differentials every night, I needed to understand the lives and times of these dungeon-masters who had created such well-honed implements of pain.
I’m sure most people with a high-school diploma have heard of Pythagoras and his theorem of the sums of squares, of Euclid and his orthogonal geometry, and of Newton and his three laws of motion. Perhaps some even know that Cartesian coordinates refer to René Descartes, and may be vaguely familiar with his adage “I think therefore I am (Cogito ergo sum).” But that’s about it. And if a titan like Descartes is today a mostly-obscure figure from a time when leeches and cupping were bona-fide medicinal therapies, what amount of glory could one expect to be bestowed upon such exemplary players as Poisson, Euler, Hilbert, Fermat, Liebniz, Gauss, Von Neumann, Ramanujan, and Cauchy.
When it comes to movies and mathematicians, it seems they rarely intersect unless the mathematician in question suffers from psychosis or borders on the deviant. Consider “A Beautiful Mind,” the 2001 Academy award winning film about the troubles and triumphs of mathematician and Nobel laureate John Nash. Nash makes a great character, mostly because he’s a paranoid delusional schizo who detects elaborate communist plots to bring down America, and sees non-existent tormentors. His mathematical prowess is presented to some degree, but the movie prefers to dwell on his oddball behavior and subsequent quasi-triumph over wackiness.
In just the past month, TODpix, in conjunction with Story Center Productions and Furnace launched the U.S. theatrical distribution of “Codebreaker,’ the story of Alan Turing – the mathematical genius whose work was instrumental in decrypting Nazi codes and in doing so aided the Allies success in World War II. Turing was also a homosexual fully 50 years before “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” – and as such, he might as well have been a two-headed, multi-penised monster deserving of punishment and ouster. Ironically in the end, Turing committed suicide thanks to the Gestapo-like tactics foisted upon him by the very countrymen who benefitted from his efforts to vanquish Gestapo tacics.
We need a good movie about a leading-man mathematician, and I think Evariste Galois fits the bill well. The man was admitted to university at age 10, but his well-educated mother preferred to school him at home. He had serious and constant run-ins with academic authority figures; in one account refused to participate in an entrance exam to École Polytechnique, finding the test too trivial, and in protest threw a rag for cleaning the blackboard in the face of the test proctor. Such rebelion plays well on screen. And while his mathematical research was bearing significant fruit, Evariste encountered roadblocks to professional progress: his papers were rejected for publication, he was expelled from university; his father committed suicide when Evariste was 18. Great conflict material. The best part is Galois’ radical political activism at a time in French history that saw great turmoil and treachery. Of course there are arrests, and romantic affairs, but Evarise Galois’ untimely demise in a duel at age 21 seals the deal for me.
Perhaps my next screenwriting endeavor will center on this picaresque mathematician who could become a hero to the numbers geeks who to date have had no one else to look up to for inspiration but the lame cast of “The Big Bang Theory.”