Category Archives: movies

Gifted while female

Popular entertainment stories about prodigies tend to follow certain common threads. The prodigy is smart but poorly socialized and sometimes a bit of an asshole. If well-meaning people can talk him off that perch, we get a happy ending (“Good Will Hunting”). If on the other hand a controlling parent or guardian figure is allowed to take over, the prodigy is more likely than not to crash and burn (“Shine”).

“Gifted,” the story of a young math prodigy named Mary and her mathematically gifted family, draws on both of these story lines, setting up a competition between the controlling figure (Mary’s grandmother Evelyn) and a well-meaning person (Mary’s uncle Frank). It’s funny and watchable. Mckenna Grace and Chris Evans have great chemistry. It’s also a film about three generations of female mathematicians, written and directed by men, with the participation of four mathematical consultants, all of them male. And it’s a missed opportunity. It’s not that men should not make films about women: I believe they absolutely should. It’s not that I would have preferred a social treatise about gender and math: I get my fill of that elsewhere. But I think that it was possible to go much deeper, dig through the clichés and explore a much more interesting territory. That road was left not taken.

I must start with disclosure: I was a math prodigy back in the day. I skipped a few grades, entered university at the age of 15 which was 4 years ahead of the normal schedule, and participated in math olympiads, where my highest accomplishment was being on the Polish team at the 1981 IMO in Washington. It’s not necessarily that much as prodigies go – I did not win any medals at the IMO, nor did I earn a Ph.D. by the age of 20 as some do – but then I was just a small town prodigy in backwater country and so you must calibrate your expectations accordingly. My parents couldn’t drive me to university classes or special gifted programs while I was in school. No such things were available where I lived, and in any event, my parents worked more than two full-time jobs between them, including both paid employment and maintaining a 5-person household at a time when food shortages were common and few Western style conveniences were available. Nor did they have a car.

I’m saying all this not to brag or complain, but to explain my interest in the matter and state my qualifications to discuss it. I’m aware that other folks may be less particular about such movies than myself. Public images of mathematical women continue to be scarce. Given how many Hollywood films still fail the Bechdel test, I do appreciate it when two women have a conversation that not only is not about a man, but also extends to mathematical research and female ambition. But if you’re looking for a review that only comments on the actual film and refrains from speculating on what could or might have been if someone else had made a different one, this is not it. I’m laying claim to my own territory which they have breached. I know the ground here. I talk to the birds and the snakes. I’ve learned my way around the place many times over. What about you? Are you interested in learning?
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More on mathematics and madness

In popular movies, a scientist is usually brilliant but troubled. We know that he’s brilliant because we’re told so repeatedly, and we know that he’s troubled because that’s plain to see. He might spend a lot of screen time getting depressed over his lack of creative output and trying to remedy this situation by getting drunk or going out for long walks – anything that will keep him from attempting any actual work. Finally, thanks to divine inspiration, a life-changing event or some other such, he stumbles upon a Great Idea. Now that he’s made his breakthrough, the days and nights go by in a blur as the work flies off his hands, the manuscript pages practically writing themselves. Once it’s all done, the scientist has to snap out of the trance, at which point it’s not uncommon for him to collapse and have a nervous breakdown.

I don’t even want to name specific movies – that’s shooting fish in a barrel. The number increases further if you substitute a writer or artist for a scientist. If you’ve seen too many Hollywood films and don’t know better from your own experience, you could be excused for drawing the conclusion that it’s somehow the mental illness that’s responsible for our creativity. I mean, scientific discovery – not to mention art – boils down to blinding flashes of brilliance, and those come hard and fast when you’re seriously kooky, right?

And now there’s a medical study that I’m sure I’ll see quoted in support of this. According to a recent article in Science Daily, researchers at Karolinska Institutet have shown that highly creative people and people with schizophrenia have similar dopamine systems. That in turn has been linked to the capacity for what the article calls “divergent thought” (a scientist is quoted to refer to it as “thinking outside the box”, one of the most annoying phrases out there), which contributes both to creative problem solving in healthy people and abnormal thought processes in people with schizophrenia. The long suspected connection – make sure to also check the links under “related articles” – may thus have a basis in brain chemistry. Yay for the Mad Scientist!

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When the truth is gone…

(Updated below: a link added.)

The main ingredients are simple: a house cat, a large box with an airtight lid, a radiation detector, a radioactive sample, and a container of poison gas such as cyanide. Start by placing the poison gas container inside the box and hooking it up to the radiation detector so that if radiation is detected, the gas container is opened and the gas is released into the box. Place the radioactive sample somewhere near the detector; the sample should be chosen so that there is, say, 50% probability that radioactive decay will be observed within an hour. Now put the cat in the box, close the box, leave the room, and shut the door behind you.

According to the superposition principle in quantum mechanics, a radioactive particle does not simply wait a while and then decay at a time chosen randomly according to a given probability distribution. Instead, it evolves into a superposition of a decayed and non-decayed state, and remains so until we check on it by performing an observation. We know that such superposed states must exist, but we never get to see them. The act of taking a measurement causes the particle to actually assume one of the two definite states, either decayed or not, with certainty. A physicist would say that the wave function of the particle collapses upon observation.

But what about the cat? If at least one of the radioactive particles decays, the poison gas is released and the cat dies. Otherwise, the cat survives. You will find out what happened once you open the box. Until then, you’re the proud owner of Schrödinger’s cat: alive and dead simultaneously, a quantum superposition of a live cat and a dead cat as dictated by the wave function of the radioactive sample.

On the other hand, if you would rather keep the kitty away from dangerous contraptions and settle for the philosophical exercise instead, you could do worse than renting A Serious Man, the latest Coen brothers movie.
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The joy of political incorrectness

Thanks to my Avatar post, I guess I’m officially a part of “a bizarre cast of characters”. Then again, what else would you expect from a math professor.

James Cameron might be laughing all the way to the bank, but his record-setting 3-D film, Avatar, is receiving criticism from a bizarre cast of characters, who accuse it of being everything from a racist throwback to the source of their overwhelming depression.

The accusations range from the comical to the militantly politically correct, with voices on both sides of the right-left political divide weighing in on the blockbuster, which has earned more than $1.1-billion around the world since its release last month.

The problem with Avatar isn’t political incorrectness – it’s the shallow, schematic thinking propped up by every possible cliché. But I’ve spent enough time on that already, so instead I’m going to write about a TV series that I’m enjoying immensely even though it’s not politically correct in any conventional sense.

That would be Mad Men, of course. The male characters are all incredibly sexist, in ways that wouldn’t even be possible today; but Mad Men counters that with two basic things. First, the sexism is not romanticized or excused: it’s just there, and it’s shown for what it is. And second, the series is just so darn well written. (Warning: mild spoilers follow.)
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Loving the alien, sans 3D

To follow up on the last post, this is priceless.. Except of course for this:


Any mathematician can tell you that watching equations get solved is far, far more exciting.

Via Alyssa.

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The beautiful losers of Avatar

(Updated below.)

I wouldn’t have seen Avatar were it not for the reviews. I’m a sucker for a good story, not so much for special effects, and would normally have little interest in a film where the computer-generated 3D visual effects are supposed to be the main attraction. But then several reviewers disclosed a major plot device that made me want to see the movie just so that I could slam it here. Which is what I’ll be doing in this post.

Many others have already beat me to it: Aaron Bady, Annalee Newitz, Eric Repphun, Lisa Wade, to name just a few. The White Saviour angle in particular has been discussed extensively and so I won’t say much about that here. Still, there are a few things I want to add to the discussion. Note that this post is full of detailed spoilers, as are the linked articles above. Then again, if you want to be surprised by plot twists, you should see a different movie.

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The men who stare at formulas

The n-category Café has a post about “Dangerous Knowledge”, the BBC documentary I reviewed here some time ago; there’s also a discussion in the comments on whether mathematicians (or academics, or creative types) are really different from “normal” people. If you came here from the link over there, welcome, and here’s hoping that you’ll enjoy this recent interview with John Nash. (Hat tip to 3QD.)

Around the 6-minute mark in the second video, Nash is asked explicitly whether his mental illness might have in some way contributed to his creativity and enabled his mathematical work. He points out in response that his work in game theory was all done before the onset of his mental problems and that he “did not develop any ideas, particularly on game theory, while being mentally irrational”. He also recalls a mistake in a published paper that he completed shortly before the breakdown and suggests that it may have been due to a malfunction of his mind.

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