kottke.org posts about Jordan Ellenberg

Math on Screen

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

Simpsons - Homer Simpson writes mathematical equations (some of them wrong) on a blackboard

Mathematics isn’t the most obviously cinematic academic discipline out there, but it is one that the movies (and to a lesser extent television) have repeatedly tried to understand, or in some cases, used to goose up a vaguely science-y story. Unsurprisingly, mathematicians often become sticklers for detail in such high-profile depictions of what they do, and a good or bad portrayal can become famous or infamous.

My friend Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is also an expert in translating math to popular audiences, in his books and sometimes on screen. In this video, he takes a look at some popular representations of math in TV and the movies, and tries to explain what’s going on, including what the filmmakers do well or not so well.

Good Will Hunting’s use of math is famously bad, and Ellenberg unsurprisingly agrees (although, surprisingly, he had never before seen the movie or even the math scenes in question). Portrayals that get a perhaps-surprisingly high score include The Simpsons (which includes several former mathematicians among its writers) and Jurassic Park — Jeff Goldblum pulls off a passable explanation of chaos theory while also eerily accurately capturing the slightly-creepy vibe of a neurotic academic asked to describe what he studies to a layperson. “He was the one who I most felt might have spent a long time studying mathematicians and truly trying to give off a mathematician vibe,” says Ellenberg.

One thing I love is Ellenberg’s attention to how each of the on-screen mathematicians write (if they do any writing themselves at all, rather than ponder something that’s already been written by a character offscreen) — the connection between math and writing is so powerful, and math is one of the great remaining repositories of manuscript culture (even as it’s also taken on computers and machines, like everything else).

Ellenberg also adds that the most important thing a movie about mathematics can do is to convey to the audience that being a mathematician is something real, ordinary people still do, rather than being just a bunch of old dead men wearing robes.