Films for Mathematicians

In the first of a new series of subject-specific recommendations, Paul Byrant picks out some number-friendly films for Mathmos…

In Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, mathematician John Nash’s dark and fascinating life is rendered opaquely as the love story of a tortured hero. The film is engaging enough, with a strong central performance from Russell Crowe, but the focus on the romantic side dominates to the extent that many interesting elements of Nash’s life go untouched: the alleged homosexual experiences, the fascination with compulsively cruel economic board games (such as ‘So Long Sucker’) and the relationship between his prickly schizophrenia and his understanding of game theory. Ultimately, this makes this a strong Hollywood film to see with your Historian partner, but will leave the curious Mathmo unsatisfied, wanting to know what this genius mind actually produced. In order to quench your thirst, seek out the original biography or read Nash’s quintessential paper ‘Non-cooperative Games’, which is still a necessary read for any budding microeconomists.

Far more reflective of the average mathematician’s life is Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, a pulsating black-and-white psychological thriller. With its repeated mantra that “everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers”, Pi also offers a constant vindication for hours spent on problem sheets. As opposed to the saccharine comfort of A Beautiful Mind, it also accurately depicts the Mathmo’s mental state – the protagonist is plagued by visions of his brain sitting bleeding in an underground station. The film is also notable for launching the film scoring career of Clint Mansell, whose soundtrack mixes late 90s big beat with electronica, most memorably when the sound of the dripping brain seamlessly blends into a piece of ambient dub music. On top of this, we watch our hero be relentlessly hunted by Jewish Kabbalah theorists and a financial tech firm, both of whom want to employ him, in a plot turn reminiscent of an internship fair gone wrong.