Numerous films, both real and fictitious, feature notable mathematicians and/or mathematical topics. Having trouble figuring out where to begin? Explore the world of arithmetic through the lens of these 20 videos.
1. Stand and Deliver (1988)
“Stand and Deliver” was the archetypal example of a film or TV show about a teacher who inspires an underachieving class to perform above expectations. “Stand and Deliver” received an Academy Award nomination and two Golden Globe nominations, including a Best Actor recognition for Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of math instructor Jaime Escalante in both ceremonies.
2. A Brief History of Time (1991)
Before “The Theory of Everything,” the Oscar-nominated biopic of Stephen Hawking’s life released in 2014 (which we’ll come to later), there was “A Brief History of Time,” another Stephen Hawking biopic. He was one of the most influential scientists of our time, and why not have many biopics on him? He was, in many ways, a new-millennium equivalent of Albert Einstein. As a side note, “The Theory of Everything” is a semi-fictionalized play, while “A Brief History of Time” is a documentary authored by Hawking himself.
3. Sneakers (1992)
“Three Days of the Condor” and “Robert Redford” normally conjure up images of the 1975 masterpiece, but this isn’t the only picture that falls into this category. Actors Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley and Mary McDonnell joined Redford in 1992’s “Sneakers,” an action thriller about a squad of hackers, techies, and spies who are hired by the government to steal a code-breaking gadget, only to become caught up in the murder inquiry of a mathematics professor. Leonard Adleman was employed as a mathematics consultant by the creators of “Sneakers,” a comedic drama. Adleman was best known for coining the term “virus” at the time. DNA computing and the RSA encryption method, which is now extensively used in secure data communications, were co-created by him and others.
4. Infinity (1996)
Feynman was a theoretical physicist who made significant contributions to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and the investigation of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, as well as to quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965), and particle physics. Feynman’s first wife, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, and the A-bomb were the focus of the 1996 film “Infinity,” which was inspired by semi-autobiographical books “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” Mixed reviews for Infinity, starring Matthew Broderick as Feynman and Patricia Arquette as his wife.
5. Good Will Hunting (1997)
However, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) had the mathematical genius to be an excellent grad student or faculty member. He was a blue collar janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At school one night, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgrd) finds Hunting surreptitiously working on a difficult math problem written on a chalkboard and takes him to see psych professor Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to learn more about Hunting’s lack of motivation and inner demons. Good Will Hunting, a film that Damon and Ben Affleck (who also starred as supporting characters) wrote while still in their twenties and sold to Miramax for $70 million and was directed by Gus Van Sant, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (Kiefer Sutherland) and best original screenplay in addition to seven other nominations across the board. Which ones are your favorites?
6. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
This is the first time we’ve seen Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, in a major position, but he had a major role in 1997’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” when he served as the narrator and the protagonist. Even though Malcolm was pronounced dead in Michael Crichton’s novel, he was eventually included in the book’s sequel, and so Jeff Goldblum was allowed to reprise his part in succeeding films. ‘Jurassic Park’ “The Lost World,” starring Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, and Arliss Howard, was directed by Steven Spielberg and earned $619 million in ticket sales.
7. Cube (1997)
As our third 1997 release, “Cube” is a departure from the prior offerings. In fact, it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. Five people are essentially stranded in a maze of cube-shaped chambers, many of which are rigged with lethal traps. In addition to fighting to stay alive, the members of the group are trying to figure out where they are and why they have ended themselves there in the first place. Critics weren’t kind to “Cube,” due to its lackluster acting and storyline, but the sci-fi horror film’s original premise and gory gore were enough to win over a devoted fan base.
8. Pi (1998)
Pi, Darren Aronofsky’s first picture, gained critical praise in 1998, long before he became famous for films like The Wrestler and Black Swan. With only 84 minutes of running duration, “Pi” is a black-and-white drama about number theorist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), who is plagued by anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations as well as persistent headaches. In addition to winning Best Director at Sundance and Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller was also nominated for Best Director at Sundance.
9. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Math genius John Nash (Russell Crowe) is eager to accept a new job working for the Pentagon and hunting for signs concealed in plain sight that allegedly hint to the location of a Soviet bomb. After being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Nash’s new boss and job turn out to be figments of his imagination. As he stands to lose everything he holds dear—including his family, his freedom, and his sanity—Nash must learn to master his mind’s incredible capacity for self-control. One-half of “A Beautiful Mind’s” eight Academy Award nominations were for its 2001 drama, which was based on the life of mathematician John Nash. This included victories for Best Picture, Director Ron Howard, Adapted Screenplay Akiva Goldsmith, and Supporting Actress Jennifer Lawrence (Jennifer Connelly).
10. “Proof” (2005)
Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) must come to grips with the death of her brilliant but mentally ill mathematician father Robert Llewellyn (Anthony Hopkins) and her relationship with her estranged sister (Hope Davis). Also in “Proof” is Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears as a former student of Robert who aids and develops a romantic relationship with Catherine. The drama from 2005 did not make a profit at the box office, but Paltrow was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe for her performance in it.
11. “21” (2008)
Students and ex-students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology formed the MIT Blackjack Team with the purpose of beating the house at blackjack in various casinos by counting cards and other other mathematic methods. The squad was the subject of the 2003 book “Bringing Down the House,” which was adapted into the 2008 film “21” despite several purported exaggerations and inaccuracies. the box office success of the Jim Sturgess and Kevin Spacey starrer despite its mixed critical reception was due in part to the strong supporting cast that included Kate Bosworth and Laurence Fishburne (along with Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts).
12. “Agora” (2009)
Have you ever wondered who the first known female mathematician was? The honor goes to Hypatia, a fourth-century Egyptian philosopher and astronomer who was also a member of the Stoic movement. It cost Hypatia her life, but in a time of religious strife, she was able to preserve and pass on ancient knowledge. “Agora,” a 2009 Spanish film starring Rachel Weisz about the powerful character, had its world premiere at Cannes and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide, while only recovering around half of its $70 million budget. Isaac and Minghella appeared as supporting characters.
13. “Moneyball” (2011)
Instead of using more traditional methods of scouting, young Yale alumnus Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) advises Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) before the 2002 MLB season to sign players according to their on-base percentage and other advanced statistics known as Sabermetrics. With no big-name players, Oakland has a record-setting year. When it comes to baseball, this isn’t a story; it’s actually happened some 17 years ago (apart from the fact that Brand’s true name is Paul DePodesta). The film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name, “Moneyball,” received ten nominations for both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
14. “Travelling Salesman” (2012)
The “P vs. NP problem” in computer science remains unsolved, but the 2012 thriller “Traveling Salesman” focuses on it, four mathematicians who solve it, and the ramifications they could face if the solution is given to the general public. With Timothy Lanzone at the helm, “Travelling Salesman” received acclaim from reviewers and was selected for the New York International Film Festival’s Official Selection.
15. “The Theory of Everything” (2014)
In contrast to “A Brief History of Time,” which was written by Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything” is based on Jane Hawking’s book “My Life with Stephen,” which she wrote after Stephen Hawking’s death, 30 years ago. Eddie Redmayne, who won Best Actor awards at the Golden Globes and the Oscars, played Stephen in the 2014 romance drama The Theory of Everything, in which Felicity Jones played Jane. At both awards shows, Jones was nominated as well. “The Theory of Everything,” directed by James Marsh, received near-universal praise and made $124 million at the movie office.
16. “The Imitation Game” (2014)
Alan Turing biopic “Alan Turing: The Enigma” served as the basis for the film “The Imitation Game,” which made $234 million at the box office, received near-universal critical praise, and garnered Graham Moore an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. British mathematician and cryptoanalyst Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, headed a code-breaking team that aided the Allies in WWII. Turing’s brilliance was not fully recognized during his lifetime, in part because he was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, even though he is now revered and regarded the founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Keira Knightley was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “The Imitation Game.”
17. “X+Y” (2014)
Nathan Ellis was diagnosed with autism at the age of nine, but he was also born with a brain that understood numbers better than nearly everyone else. To represent the United Kingdom at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), Ellis (Asa Butterfield) is selected after seven years of studying math and must learn to adjust to new situations and overcome his natural skepticism of others as well as his fear of failure. Filmed in London, “X+Y” (also known as “A Brilliant Young Mind”) is largely inspired by Daniel Lightwing’s early life.
18. “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (2015)
Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who came from humble beginnings in rural India and went on to study at Cambridge, made significant contributions to the discipline of mathematics during his brief but fruitful career. After his death in 1920 at the age of 32, his research has been proven and continues to stimulate new fields of study even now. Jeremy Irons, Devika Bhise, Toby Jones, and Stephen Fry all star in a 2015 film adaptation of the 1991 biography “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” in which Dev Patel plays Srinivasa Ramanujan.
19. “Hidden Figures” (2016)
Three Academy Award nominees, including Best Picture, “Hidden Figures” tells the true story of a group of black female mathematicians who played a pivotal role in NASA’s early days. Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, with Spencer getting Best Support Actress nods at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes for their roles.
20. “Gifted” (2017)
This first-grade math prodigy, Mary, finds herself in a custody struggle with both her grandmother, Lindsay Duncan, and her uncle, Chris Evans, about whether she should attend public school across the nation and devote her life to arithmetic or have a normal upbringing. As a talented mathematician who committed suicide, Mary’s late mother would have preferred that her daughter not follow in her footsteps. While the budget for the 2017 film was merely $7 million, it brought in $43 million at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing films of the year.