Movies are a cultural mirror that shows us who we are. They reflect our values and aspirations, but also our preconceived notions and assumptions. Movies about math and mathematicians are no different.
For example, many movies featuring mathematicians depict them as savants. The stereotypical savant character ranges from quirky genius to troubled outsider to dangerous deviant.
Math as a field is often depicted as an exclusive realm, in the sense that other characters lack even rudimentary mathematical knowledge. All too often, this lack of knowledge is not only cast as socially acceptable but even celebrated as an expression of “normality.” This supposed exclusivity creates barriers to mathematics because a cultural stereotype exists that only some people can do math.
Here in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, we believe math is for everyone – you don’t have to be a reclusive and brooding sage to be interested in math. We believe that mathematical knowledge is built by many people working together in a collective scholarly project, and not just because of individual effort.
These convictions are the motivations for our outreach initiatives through the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing, which aims to bring mathematics to young people from diverse backgrounds worldwide.
Explore the different ways movies depict math as we dive into the top eight movies about mathematicians.
- Good Will Hunting. This is one of those movies that shows the individual genius mathematician in the character of Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon. The character is undoubtedly something of a troubled outsider who runs afoul of the law. One of the foil characters, his friend Chuckie played by Ben Affleck, is math illiterate, which is shown as “normal” in this movie. Notably, Will Hunting is a working-class character who essentially sneaks into the world of academia through his job as a janitor.
- Pi. In this movie, the depiction of the mathematician is closer to the dangerous deviant than the quicky genius. The character Max Cohen, played by Sean Gullette, descends into debilitating psychosis through the movie and ultimately lobotomizes himself. Arguably a violently negative representation of a savant mathematician, Pi is a compelling movie with disturbing undertones.
- A Beautiful Mind. In this wonderfully acted movie, Russell Crowe plays John Nash, a real mathematician and Nobel Prize winner. But as in the two previously mentioned films, this is also a mathematician depicted as a troubled outsider and poorly adjusted to society. It is another savant character who crumbles under the weight of their genius, succumbing to psychosis.
- Proof. Many movies about mathematicians feature male characters. However, in this film, the mathematician is a woman, Catherine, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. There are also male mathematicians depicted in the movie, and all of them are working to solve a notoriously difficult proof. As the plot unfolds, the audience learns that the men take credit even though Catherine made the breakthrough on the proof.
- Hidden Figures. This movie features three Black women mathematicians working for NASA during the space race era. The film stars Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. The characters are based on real people and situations, though the movie takes some liberties with historical accuracy. Overall, it is a film that breaks barriers and dispels stereotypical notions of who can and can’t be a mathematician.
- The Imitation Game. Another barrier-breaking film, The Imitation Game is a biographical movie about the life and work of mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing was a gay man, and the movie depicts the tragedies he encountered as he struggled against an intolerant society. The film makes a blunt critique of a social order that accepts Turing’s mathematical and professional contributions while refusing to accept who he is as a person.
- Cube. If it were possible to strip away the sci-fi and horror elements of the film, Cube is the penultimate math movie. It has geometry, prime numbers, and even powers of prime numbers. In this Canadian-made movie, Nicole de Boer plays the mathematician character Leaven. She uses mathematical skills to navigate the horrors of the various rooms of the cube. The movie also has an autistic savant character, Kazan, played by Andrew Miller. On the one hand, the film breaks barriers by having a woman mathematician. But on the other hand, it also has a stereotypical savant character. Interestingly, the film had a mathematician as a consultant to help with mathematical accuracy, David Pravica of East Carolina University.
- Moneyball. This is the film for the applied mathematicians and statisticians. The film stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the real-life former general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. In the movie, Beane hires a statistician as his assistant manager, and the two set out to apply statistics to create a winning team. Although not barrier-breaking in the same sense as some of the films above, the practical use of mathematical knowledge in Moneyball shows that math is accessible and valuable to more than just a select few.
By the Numbers is a weekly series that reflects on the lighter side of student life, research and innovation in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. Stay tuned to this space for the next installment.