Thursday 1 May 2008

Maths in the Movies

Much of my recent work has been involved with understanding the maths used in movie production and in how mathematics and mathematicians are portrayed on film.

I recently attended the mathematics film festival Film3 — maths at the movies at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and Plus Magazine (where I work) is running a series of stories on maths in the movies in conjunction with this.

I am also running a video conference on the topic with the Motivate program. Motivate runs real-time video-conferences for schools, providing maths, science and cross-curricular information and linked projects for students of all ages (5-19) both in the UK and internationally. In my session, we are investigating some of the maths we find in movies such as A Beautiful Mind and Pi, and also some of the maths used to create movies, such as in Lord of the Rings and Shrek. This involves such things as coordinate and vector geometry and complex numbers. If you are a student or teacher and are interested in getting involved with this, see the program’s website.

This week's podcast is a sneak peak at some of this maths / movies content. In this show, I interview the director of the Edinburgh maths film festival, Madeleine Shepherd, over a couple of drinks after the screening of the film Pi - listen to this podcast here.

The season of mathematical movies was created by the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences and Filmhouse Cinema to showcase three very different independent films. Each film is based around a mathematical concept, but also provides an element of social commentary.

The season opened with the UK premiere of the highly acclaimed animation, Flatland the Film. Based on the 1889 novel by Edwin A. Abbot, the film tackles issues revolving around race, gender, religion and globalisation. Mr A. Square is an average middle-class Flatlander until enlightenment allows him to see his world from a different dimension. He discovers that Flatland is threatened by forces it cannot possibly recognise. Will he be able to save his family and his world?

Pi explores the life and experiences of Max, a gifted mathematician who believes that everything in the Universe can be expressed mathematically. He becomes obsessed with finding the underlying pattern behind the stock market, but religious and commercial groups try to exploit his research. Can he pass through this philosophical maelstrom and survive unscathed?

The final film, Cube investigates the relationships between six apparently unconnected individuals who wake up inside a three-dimensional maze of interlocking cubes. Developing mutual trust is the key to survival as they are forced to collaborate on cracking the code behind the Cube's mechanism. How many will escape to discover the bigger mystery that lies outside their existentialist prison?

You can read more about maths in the movies in the Plus and Mr Science articles: And it seems Hollywood has finally figured out what we've all known for a while: that maths is sexy.

Actor John Hurt believes maths has become "sexy". Hurt stars as a maths professor in the new film The Oxford Murders. In the film, Hurt and a graduate student played by Elijah Wood discover a series of murders linked by mathematical symbols.

Hurt told the BBC World Service that: "I think there is something that has brought maths to the fore. I think probably because we live in a world with so many lies, and so much lack of truth, that it has become quite sexy to think of the one thing we have which is the only language that is truthful. There's no way of disproving that two plus two equals four, and therefore, take that to the ultimate, much more complicated areas, and you're dealing with something which is truthful."

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