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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

5 Movies that Every Math Person Should See

We love movies. We love math. But our favorite thing is when those two worlds are combined. In the list below, we've done our best to curate a collection of math movies that everyone will love.


Pi – Any list of math movies has to begin with Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut from 1998, Pi. Starring Sean Gullette as mathematician and number theorist Max Cohen, Pi tells a story of one man’s descent towards insanity, and the dark side that comes with pursuing a lifelong passion. Max is hell-bent on finding a way to “crack the code” of nature through the use of mathematics, and will stop at nothing until he can accomplish his goal. Max’s quest takes him from the stock market and financial world to studying Gematria, an ancient Jewish tradition in which letters are given numerical values. This film sticks with you for a long time after you’ve seen it, and really does make viewers wonder if there is a code to crack the world.


Actor Casey Bond playing baseball's Chad Bradford
Moneyball – With an all-star cast (see what I did there?) and an intriguing storyline, it is no mystery as to why this 2011 flick starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman remains a fan-favorite to this day. Moneyball uses mathematics in a way that is much more applicable to the real world than Pi or some of the other films on our list. The film tells the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and how he revolutionized baseball through the use of number-backed analytics instead of name recognition and traditional talent scouting. Beane’s success with analytics sparked a similar movement in basketball, and is partly responsible for the annual Sloan Sports Analytics conference held right down the road from the Center of Math in Cambridge!


21 – Another film that shows how math can be used in daily interactions (although not legally) is 21, starring Kevin Spacey. Released in 2008, 21 recounts the true story of how six students at MIT successfully counted cards at various Vegas Casinos to get rich quick. Interestingly enough, the math behind counting cards is relatively elementary, but the poise and gusto required to pull it off when the stakes are high requires years of practice. Bonus points to this movie for its setting- beautiful Cambridge, Mass.

Princeton University
Proof  - Released in 2005 and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, and Jake Gyllenhaal, this drama masterfully uses math as a backdrop to portray the struggle of trying to please ones’ parents while still developing some semblance of individuality. Hopkins and Paltrow play a father-daughter mathematician combo, both brilliant, and both vulnerable to bouts of mental instability. Out of all the films on this list, Proof integrates mathematics into the script the most. The math in the film is accurate and intriguing. 

Actor Russell Crowe on the left, and John Nash on the right

A Beautiful Mind – Based on Nobel Prize laureate and recent Abel award winner John Nash, A Beautiful Mind is one of Russell Crowe’s best films (in our opinion). The film tells the story of Nash’s arrival to Princeton, his rise up the ranks in the math world, and his struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. His work on game theory is partially explained, but we at the Center found the explanation too simplistic for what it is.  This film is not an entirely truthful recollection of Nash’s life, and there are some serious doses of Hollywoodism injected into the script. However, if you are looking for a biography of Nash’s life, definitely check out the PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness. A Beautiful Mind  was released in 2001 and did go on to win four Academy Awards, and Nash has continued to publish dominant and award winning in the Mathematics field. He will surely go down as one of the most influential mathematicians of our time. 

What do you think of our choices? Did we miss one of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.

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