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Math Goes to the Movies

Burkard Polster and Marty Ross

Publication Year: 2012

Mel Gibson teaching Euclidean geometry, Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins acting out Zeno's paradox, Michael Jackson proving in three different ways that 7 x 13 = 28. These are just a few of the intriguing mathematical snippets that occur in hundreds of movies. Burkard Polster and Marty Ross have pored through the cinematic calculus and here offer a thorough and entertaining survey of the quirky, fun, and beautiful mathematics to be found on the big screen. Math Goes to the Movies is based on the authors’ own collection of more than 700 mathematical movies and their many years using movie clips to inject moments of fun into their courses. With more than 200 illustrations, many of them screenshots from the movies themselves, this book provides an inviting way to explore math, featuring such movies as • Good Will Hunting • A Beautiful Mind • Stand and Deliver • Pi • Die Hard • The Mirror Has Two Faces The authors use these iconic movies to introduce and explain important and famous mathematical ideas: higher dimensions, the golden ratio, infinity, and much more. Not all math in movies makes sense, however, and Polster and Ross talk about Hollywood’s most absurd blunders and outrageous mathematical scenes. They round out this engaging journey into the realm of mathematics by conducting interviews with mathematical consultants to movies. This fascinating behind-the-scenes look at movie math shows how fun and illuminating equations can be.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. xi-xiv

About ten years ago, on a whim, we began to collect movies containing mathematics. Now, as a consequence of that whim, we own a library of more than 800 movies on DVD, VHS, 16 mm, Laserdisc, and some strange thing called . . .

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Part I Movies

Part I is devoted to some of the most famous mathematical movies, such as π and Good Will Hunting. Most of these movies are readily available on DVD, and we have written the chapters with the assumption that the reader . . .

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Chapter 1 Good Math Hunting

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pp. 3-19

Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is a mathematical wunderkind. Will has no formal mathematical education, and when we first encounter him as a twenty-year-old in Good Will Hunting (1997), he is working as a janitor . . .

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Chapter 2 The Clever Hand Behind A Beautiful Mind

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pp. 21-39

A Beautiful Mind (2001) tells the story of John Nash, mathematical genius and winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for economics, and his struggle with schizophrenia. The movie is very unusual in that the main character is a . . .

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Chapter 3 Escalante Stands and Delivers

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pp. 41-52

This is one of our favorites. Stand and Deliver (1988) is the story of Jaime Escalante, a mathematics teacher from Bolivia who comes to Garfield High, a poor and poorly run school in the Latino area of East Los Angeles. He is . . .

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Chapter 4 The Annotated Pi Files

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pp. 53-70

Darren Aronosky’s π (1998) is an excellent, dark movie. Featuring a clever script, very good acting, and plenty of beautiful mathematics, this is a mustsee cult movie, and a great source for mathematical . . .

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Chapter 5 Nitpicking in Mathmagic Land

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pp. 71-84

In Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959), we accompany Donald Duck (played by himself) as the True Spirit of Adventure introduces him to the wonders of mathematics. This gem of a movie is to mathematics what . . .

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Chapter 6 Escape from the Cube

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pp. 85-96

The mathematics behind the Cube really works. In fact, the Cube was designed by David W. Pravica, a professor of mathematics at East Carolina University.1 Pravica was also consulted during the making of the movie, . . .

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Chapter 7 The Incredible Shrinking Room

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pp. 97-102

Fermat’s Room (La Habitaci´on de Fermat) (2007) is a Spanish movie reminiscent of Cube (1997). Four “mathematicians,” strangers to each other, are invited to a party by a mysterious host who calls himself Fermat. . . .

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Chapter 8 Murder in the Hot House

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pp. 103-108

In “Hot House” (2010), two mathematicians are murdered. The first, Christopher Bolingbroke, is a former professor of pure mathematics at the University of Melbourne. He is now spending his time coaching brilliant math students, . . .

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Chapter 9 A Word Problem for Die Hards

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pp. 109-114

In Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), John (Bruce Willis) and Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson) have been set a little problem by the villain, Simon . . .

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Chapter 10 7 × 13 = 28

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pp. 115-120

A number of Abbott and Costello’s memorable routines have a mathematical flavor. The clear standout is the donut scene in In the Navy (1941).1 Lou Costello plays Pomeroy, a baker, and Bud Abbott is his . . .

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Chapter 11 One Mirror Has Two Faces, Two Mirrors Have . . .

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pp. 121-131

The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) is an unusual story for Hollywood: boy meets girl, boy and girl have trouble, and eventually both live happily ever . . .

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Chapter 12 It’s My Turn for Some Serious Mathematics

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pp. 133-140

To our knowledge, It’s My Turn (1980) is the only movie with a scene dedicated to the detailed proof of a mathematical theorem.1 It is astonishing to have such a scene begin a Hollywood movie. Perhaps even more . . .

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Part II Mathematics

In this second part of the book, we incorporate the material from many movies into mathematical surveys. It is not essential to have seen the clips beforehand. On the other hand, it definitely wouldn’t hurt. . . .

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Chapter 13 Beautiful Math, or Better Off Dead

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pp. 143-150

There are two kinds of people: those who think that math is beautiful; and those who think that those who think that math is beautiful are crazy. On occasion, one of the former meets one of the latter, and chances are . . .

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Chapter 14 Pythagoras and Fermat at the Movies

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pp. 151-160

Pythagoras’s theorem and Fermat’s last theorem are two of the superstars of mathematics. In this chapter we’ll see what the movies can, and cannot, teach us about these . . .

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Chapter 15 Survival in the Fourth Dimension

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pp. 161-176

In The Simpsons episode “Homer3,” Homer is seeking to hide from Marge’s sisters and discovers a portal to the third dimension. Rather than face the sisters, he takes his chances in the mystery world, and gets . . .

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Chapter 16 To Infinity, and Beyond!

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pp. 177-190

So exclaims Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies. However, Buzz is referring to his willingness to travel to the ends of the Universe in order to save his pal Woody. He is unlikely to be as gung ho in the realm of . . .

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Chapter 17 Problem Corner

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pp. 191-198

Thérèse is a mathematical prodigy in Antonia’s Line (1985). We see her as a young girl, her precociousness on . . .

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Chapter 18 Money-Back Bloopers

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pp. 199-208

It’s pretty hard for a movie with math to totally avoid bloopers. However, some are simply unforgivable, or are forgivable and just really, really funny. In this chapter, we’ve collected some of . . .

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Chapter 19 The Funny Files

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pp. 209-228

The previous chapter was dedicated to listing the funniest mathematical bloopers. Here, we list the funniest math scenes that are . . .

Part III Lists

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Chapter 20 People Lists

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pp. 231-250

For this chapter, we have compiled a number of annotated lists of mathematical . . .

Chapter 21 Topics Lists

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pp. 251-280

Movie Index

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pp. 281-286

E-ISBN-13: 9781421406084
E-ISBN-10: 142140608X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421404837
Print-ISBN-10: 1421404834

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 97 halftones, 58 line drawings
Publication Year: 2012