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Mathematics in Movies
May 6, 2007 6:59 AM   Subscribe


 
This is the kind of thing where the fact that someone made the site is more interesting than the site itself. It's the Harvard Math Dept -- so "Look, kids, math is cool!" -- ? The scene from Clueless was my personal favorite:

Girl: If it's a concussion we've got to keep her conscious. Ask her questions.
Boy: What's 7 x 7?
Girl: (exasperated) Stuff she knows!
posted by Methylviolet at 9:06 AM on May 6, 2007


Pretty sweet.
posted by sneakin at 9:23 AM on May 6, 2007


One thing I've always been curious about in movies like Pi and Good Will Hunting and such is if the math is real, or if they're mainly just making up mumbo jumbo for the sake of the plot.
posted by psmealey at 9:29 AM on May 6, 2007


psmealey, there's a scene in goodwill hunting where matt daemon and the math professor do quadratic equations on the blackboard. It looks really impressive and big, but it's 8th grade algebra. I imagine a lot of the math in those movies goes along those lines.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:37 AM on May 6, 2007


I was kinda hoping for some critique on the math shown in these clips, myself.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:42 AM on May 6, 2007


I sure hope Stand and Deliver is on the list of the 13 movies to process. I'd be curious what else is on the list.

And then once I saw this show where this 12 year old was trying to solve a basically unsolvable theorem but was really doodling in his notebook because his dad built him up to be a genius but he wasn't and one of the teachers got killed... Oh, I guess that was really Law and Order.
posted by artifarce at 9:42 AM on May 6, 2007


According to the commentary track on Sneakers, the lecture is an actual lecture given by a real mathematician (though performed by an actor here) on the topic relevant to the movie's plot.

I always watched it on VHS, so it's a movie to me: Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land, the billiards scene.
posted by carsonb at 9:44 AM on May 6, 2007


Excuse me, that is the slides in the lecture are from a lecture on the topic at hand in the movie.
posted by carsonb at 9:45 AM on May 6, 2007


nice! the Ma & Pa Kettle video is a great illustration of how doing arithmetic by manipulating digits inside placeholder slots can seem completely arbitrary, and thus useless to some people (ie me)

I used to hate doing long division, etc in grade school. I flourished when algebra was finally introduced to me (I know, algebra is manipulating symbols and subsymbols inside placeholder slots too)

also, having gone to a Buddhist chinese elementary school, I had the opportunity of loathing abacus class as well. The video of Broderick as Feynman beating the abacus master is one the few good scenes in that lacklustre movie...
posted by growli at 9:57 AM on May 6, 2007


I went to art school to avoid math. Head hurty.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:20 AM on May 6, 2007


Math is hard.
Chuck Norris is hard.
Therefore, Chuck Norris is Math.
posted by psmealey at 11:31 AM on May 6, 2007


I went to math school to avoid art. Heart heavy.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'd always heard that Jill Clayburgh did a fantastic job in It's My Turn explaining the snake lemma exactly as a real mathematician would in an introductory graduate algebra course. And it's true! The math in Jurassic Park was particularly badly done, as I recall (though I thought Jeff Goldblum did a good job of imitating the manner in which mathematicians talk about math -- he just said dumb things while doing it.)
posted by escabeche at 12:00 PM on May 6, 2007


Psmeasley, Pi is definitely not accurate. That movie annoyed me because whenever they show pi, it's correct up to 10 digits or something and then totally random after that.
posted by painquale at 12:03 PM on May 6, 2007


it's correct up to 10 digits or something and then totally random after that.
Heh. I get what you mean, but that's basically what pi is...
posted by Sangermaine at 12:31 PM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


I went to art school to avoid math. Head hurty.

That explains a lot about the logic of your posts.

/zing!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:06 PM on May 6, 2007


Sangermaine writes "Heh. I get what you mean, but that's basically what pi is..."

I don't get what you mean.
posted by Bugbread at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2007


One thing I've always been curious about in movies [...] is if the math is real, or if they're mainly just making up mumbo jumbo for the sake of the plot.

Yes, it is the or. I always pay attention to that to. Although I do not expect to be familiar with every field in mathematics, I do spot inaccuracies at a very basic level. Script editors with science background are a rare requirement, not only in math.
posted by carmina at 3:01 PM on May 6, 2007


Remember who we're talking about here... movie-goers.

I'm not a mathematician (just an engineer), but I routinely encounter people who don't know how even the most basic technology they use every day works. A substantial part of the US population believes that the sun rotates about the earth, and can't identify what position Dick Cheney holds.

Being an engineer, I completely skip dealing with technical anachronisms (like the guy who got hung up on in one movie and the sound effect was a dial tone... in the early 1950's supposedly!), and likewise, I ignore anything dealing with computer science or math in movies. It's dumbed down a lot, and usually tangential (sorry for the trig term) to the plot anyway.
posted by FauxScot at 3:33 PM on May 6, 2007


One thing I've always been curious about in movies like Pi and Good Will Hunting and such is if the math is real...
Pi is actually one of my favorite movies, but the "math" is a mixture of gibberish and mysticism, which bugs me.

The worst howler is a moment when it becomes clear that several different parties are trying to find a particular 216-digit number, which they imagine the math-prodigy protagonist knows. The protagonist scoffs, saying something like "Surely you've tried writing out every 216-digit number." No response is made, and this is taken as confirmation.

If you could somehow use a very small pencil to write one 216-digit number on every proton, neutron, and electron in the known universe, you'd run out of particles long, long, long before you ran out of 216-digit numbers. Which every character in the scene should have understood perfectly well.

Maybe that's one reason Pi isn't included in this list.
posted by Western Infidels at 3:38 PM on May 6, 2007


If you could somehow use a very small pencil to write one 216-digit number on every proton, neutron, and electron in the known universe, you'd run out of particles long, long, long before you ran out of 216-digit numbers. Which every character in the scene should have understood perfectly well.


That scene always annoys me slightly, too

Luckily, Pi isn't so much a movie about maths, as a movie about obsession and madness, so its not too irksome
posted by ZippityBuddha at 3:49 PM on May 6, 2007


I enjoyed Pi's overarching themes as well - I guess I'm more of a mathematical layman as I could care less what the value of Pi is beyond 3.14 - come to think of it I haven't used Pi in some time, and don't anticipate using it.
posted by 2shay at 7:28 PM on May 6, 2007


FauxScot: To be fair, from his actions you'd think Dick Cheney was also a little unsure as to what position he holds too.

Is there any profession or activity that is realistically portrayed in movies?
posted by sien at 10:13 PM on May 6, 2007


Missing some classics i think.

Very coincidentally, my math lecturer asked if I could get the following clips for her for a short course she was running:
the water jug problem from Die Hard 3
The density problem (ducks & witches) from Holy Grail
The university challeng in the train (the young ones)
Baldrick, Blackadder and Beans (Blackadder of course)

YouTube was mostly helpful.
posted by b33j at 10:56 PM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


oh and she told me only about 50% of adults get proportional reasoning. WF?! That's if you feed 2 mice three blocks of cheese a day, how many blocks of cheese a day do you feed 6 mice? Or pancake mix is 3 cups of flour, 2 cups of milk, 1 egg. What if you wanted to make twice as much? What quantities would you use? That sort of thing.
posted by b33j at 11:00 PM on May 6, 2007


Always drives me crazy how things like Photoshop retouching are made to look so simple in movies. "Look! I press one button! Voila!" Riiight. Or when someone wants to do a closeup from a security camera, they just hit zoom and they can look at the pores on someone's face in PERFECT high resolution detail when in truth it would be just grainy crap.
posted by miss lynnster at 4:52 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is there any profession or activity that is realistically portrayed in movies?

I think there's a lot of SciFi out there that at least tries to be internally consistent with science. Just wondering if similar care were take in some of these movies where mathmetics is involved in forwarding the plot and character development.
posted by psmealey at 4:57 AM on May 7, 2007


miss lynnster - totally agree - someone needs to invent that technology
posted by 2shay at 6:04 AM on May 7, 2007


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