Getting the Magic Number

Milos Stehlik is Facets’ creative director and a renowned film expert. Here he discusses the many appearances of mathematicians in cinema, and explores how their struggles and genius is shown.

Years ago, I had a friend who thought the magic number was six. If he saw a house number for example, and if it was 2049, he would do some figures. “Two and four is six, six and nine is 15, one and five is six, this house is a lucky number.” I am not sure if this was something he invented or learned, or if it really makes any logical sense under any circumstances, but hey, whatever. It made him happy.

Recently, on NPR, I learned that Czechs believed that the magic number is eight. Being Czech, ironically, it was the first time I heard this. Nevertheless, I guess it’s parenthetically supported by Czech history.

For example it was 1618 when the Czechs threw out Hapsburg emissaries from the windows of Prague castle. The Hapsburg emissaries survived by landing on a heap of garbage and thus started the Thirty Years War which ended in 300 years of Hapsburg domination. Please, don’t ask me why throwing the bad guys out the window is always referred to as “defenestration.”

There are other eights in Czech history of course. In 1918 Czechoslovakia became an independent republic. 1948, the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. 1968, the Prague Spring and Soviet invasion. And, slightly off, 1989, there’s an eight still in there, the Velvet Revolution, lead to the fall of Communist rule.

So Much for History

In an interesting article in The Guardian, writers and mathematicians argued that mathematicians are too serious to be depicted accurately on film . A mathematician’s endless hours scribbling formulas on a sheet of paper is just too boring or undramatic. Today we have many typical ways of showing mathematical brilliance like the white marker on a window. But it’s just not true.

Peter Greenaway is certainly a filmmaker who is always fascinated by numbers. Not only does Greenaway express his fascination in the aptly titled Drowning By Numbers which came out in the very lucky year 1988, but even in his films like The Pillow Book (1996). The Pillow Book is a really brilliant film based on the famous 10th century diaries of a Japanese courtesan, where language barriers are crossed by complex patterns of cryptic symbols.

Many films have been able to give life to mathematicians. The elation of mathematical discovery is well rendered on screen. Take The Imitation Game (2014), even with all its inaccuracies and shameful handling of Alan Turing’s sexuality, when the genius who broke the Nazi codes and helped win World War II finally cracks it, it’s certainly exciting.

The transcendental character of mathematics was taken up by Darren Aronofsky. His bold, debut feature, Pi (1998) is the bizarre story of a lonely mathematician who might have unlocked the formula which represents a key to the universe. And there are other films which give life to previously unknown number wizards. But more recently films have taken up the personal struggles of real mathematicians.

Hidden Figures (2016) proved a really honest film which deserved much greater exposure. The film told the story of the human computers at NASA, the African American women who faced segregation and racism, even as they provided the calculations to help U.S. be competitive in the space race.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016) similarly, follows the huge obstacles which faced Indian mathematics protégé Srinivasa Ramanujan. He made his way through the over-privileged, patronizing, racist, and dismissive world of British academia at Oxford.

Then there are what are today becoming classics such as Good Will Hunting (1997), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Moneyball (2011), Fermat’s Room (2007), and A Brief History of Time (1991), Errol Morris’s cerebral documentary about Stephen Hawking are all well known around different circles of film lovers.

In their own right, Enigma (2001), The Theory of Everything (2014) a fictionalized Hawking’s life, and Stand and Deliver (1988), depict a real love of mathematics in people of all backgrounds. In the Marleen Gorris film Antonia’s Line (1995) one of the five generations of women in the film is a child prodigy who grows up to be a mathematician.

Edward James Olmos turns in a powerful performance in Stand and Deliver (1988).

This is just scratching the surface, but it’s obvious that math is in everything. A Pixar scientist, Tony DeRose, believes that film could not exist without math from the numbers that create a pixel that forms the digital image, to understanding how light bounces around in an environment. DeRose advanced this view in a 2013 TED Talk .

And of course, math is also present in so-called Hollywood accounting. That’s where the real creativity kicks in.

Happy Viewing!


Author: Facets founder and Worldview film critic, Milos Stehlik takes us on a tour of film history each week with our Member Newsletter. Get advanced access by becoming a Facets Member today.

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