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Math Goes to the Movies

Burkard Polster and Marty Ross
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Richard J. Wilders
, on

Math Goes to the Movies is a wonderful read. You won’t learn any mathematics from it, but you will learn a lot about how movies are made, particularly movies that contain mathematics. You will also be treated to several insider looks at the life of a “math consultant” in a film. Don’t count on getting a gig soon, however, as most of the consultants discussed got their jobs by being in the right place at the right time.

The book contains extended discussions of the few major films in which mathematics plays a substantial role, as well as lots of examples of less-known films or of films where math is merely an extra. I read it straight through, but you can also browse, an activity which the clever section titles are clearly meant to encourage. Here are a few examples. Can you guess the mathematical tidbit to be discussed? Can you guess the film they appeared in?

  • Chapter 16 To infinity and Beyond: Mystical Musings; Toward Infinity but Getting Lost; Golden Infinity, Poetic Summation.
  • Chapter 18 Money-Back Bloopers: The Curse of Pi, Scary Geometry, Slips of the Tongue

As you might expect, Pi, Good Will Hunting, Stand and Deliver, and A Beautiful Mind are all treated in some detail. The authors spent time with the principals in each of these films and provide us with an insider’s view of the movie world and of how directors and actors deal with a subject most of them know nothing about. What we learn is that appearances are everything. While a director doesn’t want mathematicians complaining that a film contains phony or incorrect math, it’s the appearance of the words and equations that is most important. Having a board full of math that looks “cool” is more important than the actual content, which, after all, will only be accessible to a small percentage of the film’s audience.

The book begins with an extended discussion of Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon plays mathematical prodigy Will Hunting. Will is working as a janitor at MIT and comes to the attention of Professor Gerald Lambeau when he correctly answers several questions posted on a chalkboard outside of Lambeau’s office. Clearly the director will want a real mathematician around to make sure the math on the chalkboard and in Lambeau’s classroom is correct, right? But how to find such a person? In this case two members of film crew spotted physicist Patrick O’Donnell eating dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. He was asked to serve as an extra. O’Donnell agreed and provided basic information about his profession. A few hours later they showed up in his office and asked if he would be interested in serving as a consultant. He agreed to this as well and the chapter opens with an extended interview of O’Donnell and his experiences on and off the set of Good Will Hunting.

Among several interesting revelations (among them discussions amongst O’Donnell and the director as to just how each chalkboard should look) we learn that Lambeau was originally to have been a Nobel Prize Winner. As you probably know there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, so he became a Fields Medalist. O’Donnell also got his bit part in the film, playing a drunk in a bar!

The second film which receives an extended treatment is A Beautiful Mind, a semi-biographical treatment of Nobel Prize winning economist John Nash. Professor David Bayer of Columbia University served as consultant and A-list actor Russell Crowe portrayed Nash. The authors again provide the results of extended conversations with Bayer. As you may recall, there is math on chalkboards and also math on gothic windows (it’s set at Princeton). The director originally envisioned Crowe writing on the chalkboard as he lectured. Crowe was amazed that he would be required to write and talk at the same time. His role was reduced to an occasional erasure.

In the case of both Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind, the mathematics is presented in discrete pieces; no actual proofs or extended discussion take place. To see a complete proof, you need to find a copy of the 1980 film It’s My Turn in which Jill Clayburn proves the Snake Lemma from homological algebra in the opening scene! The clip is worth a look.

The math is correct all the way through the movie and includes several references to the classification of finite simple groups. Jill’s character is apparently on the verge of discovering (or has discovered, it’s not clear) one of the famous sporadic simple groups. At one point Jill responds to a criticism that she is going too slowly by remarking that she is, after all over 20. The consultant suggested changing 20 to 30 and was informed that Clayburn could never admit to being over 20 and remain an A-list actress. Some things never change!

As you would expect movies don’t always get the math right. Polster and Ross treat us to lots of math bloopers some of which were probably intentional. Here’s a problem posed by Elizabeth Hurley playing the devil in Bedazzled: “Problem 22, xn + yn = zn. Solve for n >2. Show your work!”

Here’s another. James Bond In The World is not Enough, informed that a bomb 106 miles from its target is traveling at 70 miles per hours quickly concludes that he has 78 minutes to stop it. And, from The Wizard of Oz: The Scarecrow proves the power of his new brain by remarking that “ The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the other side.” Homer Simpson obtains this same result in an episode of the Simpsons.

There are lots of other great tales in this book and I think it would be a great addition to a college library. It would also be a nice supplemental text for a film course. The authors maintain a web site that is well worth a visit. It contains links to lots of video clips including a wonderful segment from The Wonder Years and another from Wonder Woman. Finally, a quote from George Burns as God in Oh God II: “Mathematics, that was a mistake. I should have made the whole thing a little easier.”

Richard J. Wilders ( is Professor of Mathematics and Marie and Bernice Gantzert Professor of the Liberal Arts at North Central College in Naperville,IL. His interests include the history of mathematics and of science.

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akirak's picture

Mathematics Goes to the Movies is a great book for anyone who loves math and movies. The first several chapters each discuss a specific popular movie containing significant mathematics, such as Good Will Hunting (1997). The later chapters present lots of fun mathematical movie trivia.

Some other movies which the book goes into detail with are Stand and Deliver (1988), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Pi (1998), and It's My Turn (1980). This last movie, the authors tell us, is one of the only movies in the history of cinema to feature a (correct) proof of a mathematical result (namely, the snake lemma). The book discusses the mathematical aspects of the movie in detail, but, to whet your appetite, here is a short quote from it:

Kate Gunzinger: Let me just show you how to construct the map S, which is the fun of the lemma anyhow, okay? So you assume you have an element in the kernel of...
It's My Turn (1980), script by Eleanor Bergstein.

As mentioned, the later chapters present lots of fun mathematical movie trivia. For example, in Die Hard with a Vengence ("Die Hard 3"), the characters played by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are given various puzzles by the character played by Jeremy Irons. Some of these are mathematical in nature and these are discussed in detail in the book.

This book is written with a breezy, humorous style. If you like math and movies and are looking for a fun read, check it out. Also, there is a lot of information at their MMDB website and at the related math movie clip website by O. Knill, where you can find lots of movie clips.