Friday, February 01, 2013

crazy mathematicians on film (update)

I know I owe the dear readers a continuation of the Bond series, but I'm taking a digression to write about math in film.

An update to my previous post on this issue.

Just saw the Paltrow/Hopkins film Proof, which deals with a father and daughter who are mathematicians who each has issues with mental illness.  In the case of the father, he is presented as a leading light of his generation who, tragically, succumbed to his illness as he grew older, becoming first incapable of doing serious work, and ultimately falling apart completely.  Oh, and he died before the film started.

As for the daughter, she's dealing with two issues.  First, there are her hallucinations of her interacting with her father.  To make the movie more exciting, the film also contains flashbacks!  The second issue is the discovery of a proof that is believed to be earth-shattering in its importance.  But there is a question of authorship.  The daughter claims that she was the author, but her sister thinks it's probably her father's work. Jake Gyllenhaal's character is initially skeptical but ultimately decides it's more likely that the daughter, even with her limited background, is the author as opposed to the father, who had drifted out of the field quite a time ago and wasn't familiar with the more modern methods used in the proof.

From  my perspective, this was a bizarre point to get stuck on.  If and when I am the author of ideas, I am the master of them.  A mathematician would not be able to fake authorship of a 40-page proof of seminal importance, which is what this proof is supposed to be in this film.  There is more to the presentation of ideas than the mere words that are on the page.

Anyway, this is certainly an interesting film, even though it's yet another "crazy mathematicians" film.  I have a bit of an issue with how the people talk when they're talking about math.  They simply aren't "talking math" like working mathematicians do.  This is something that would be harder for a non-mathematician to create.  Most of the discussions about math in this film are entirely at a superficial level, and never talk about content. A few words are sprinkled in here and there, but they feel more like oregano on a salad than anything else.  (Example: in a flashback Gwyneth is talking to a math prof about some homework she hasn't done well.  He says something like: surely you're not saying that differential equations are boring!  It's hard to imagine any mathematician saying something like that, for the simple reason that differential equations are among the most boring topics in all math.)

The meta-discussions are ok, and they do a good job in terms of how mathematicians talk about math to non-mathematicians.  But when mathematicians are talking to each other (and Paltrow and Gyllenhaal are supposed to be mathematicians in this film), they don't talk about math at that level.  Concepts should be flying back and forth but we see pretty much nothing.

Trying to think of other films that do a better job at this particular issue.  Fermat's Room does so, I think.  A Beautiful Mind?  No, not really.  Certainly not Good Will Hunting.  It's the kind of thing that Stanislaw Lem does so well in his writing.  Lem actually writes fictional math, which most authors don't dare to try to do.

Having said that, I think Proof does a better job in terms of explaining the social sphere of mathematicians than most films do.  Your typical mathematician is more like the guys in this film than they are like Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park.

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