Sidney Perkowitz September 2 2019

The Poetry and the Prose of Math - Part 2: Prose


The 32 films in Labocine's THE POETRY OF MATH actually included both poetic and prosaic mathematical moments, which I equated to pure and applied math respectively. I covered poetry in the first of two articles and now I’m turning to the prose of applied math. 

What do we mean by applied math? In one sense, it’s everywhere. Every artifact around us was designed and built with the help of numerical measurements and calculations, whether simple or advanced. Basic arithmetic and geometry show up as well in daily activities such as calculating the tip for a restaurant meal or finding the area of a room. At this level math is so woven into society that we take it and its basic ideas for granted. 

Apart from its own standing as a special area of knowledge and research, math is also an essential scientific tool. Science could not function without the quantitative and analytical capabilities math provides, combined with observation and experiment. This connection is strongest for the physical sciences and engineering, especially physics, but is also important in the social sciences such as economics and sociology, typically through statistical analysis. Mathematics underpins computer science and plays a growing role in biomedical science as that becomes more analytical. Several films in The Poetry of Math illustrate both kinds of use. 

Einstein-Rosen (2017, Olga Osorio) shows math applied to physics through its story of two young brothers, Teo and Oscar, and a wormhole. After Einstein developed the equations of general relativity, his theory of gravity, he and others explored their solutions. Two results were especially intriguing: cosmic locations where gravity becomes so strong that nothing can escape, called black holes; and “Einstein-Rosen bridges,” later called wormholes, short-cuts between different regions that might be very far apart in space or time, perhaps making it possible to travel rapidly between them. Both were purely mathematical predictions with no guarantee that they actually exist; but astronomers have found clear evidence of black holes, including one at the center of our own galaxy. They are now thought to be real objects. 

No wormhole has ever been observed, but in Einstein-Rosen, Teo believes he has found one. Oscar doubts it, but Teo kicks a soccer ball toward the supposed wormhole, and…the ball disappears. Now fast forward from 1982, when Teo found the wormhole, to 2017 when the brothers have reached their forties. Teo has calculated that the ball will travel 35 years forward in time to this exact moment. Sure enough, it reappears as the brothers watch. Then to their surprise, dozens of other objects rain down, mainly Oscar’s toys that Teo has mischievously tossed into the wormhole. The last straw is the appearance of Oscar’s pet turtle Pepe, who Teo had also catapulted into the wormhole. Oscar is upset, saying “I cried for six months, thinking he had been run over by a car;” but at least Pepe has returned, apparently unharmed by his trip through time. 

Einstein-Rosen (2017, Olga Osorio)

The nearly feature-length Strange Particles (2018, Denis Klebleev) shows the influence of math on physics in a different way. Konstantin is a 30-ish theoretical physicist, who does not do lab experiments but works with complicated equations (briefly shown in the film) describing quantum physics and black holes. He teaches university physics in Moscow. In the summer he teaches and is a dorm counselor at the school’s sea-side campus, where the film is mostly set. 

We first meet him walking along a road, talking on his cell phone about his research. He is devoted to his work, but it isolates him as he spends most of his time thinking about it. He makes no friends at the summer campus and eats alone. The intensity carries over to his teaching. His students are after all young men who may be willing to learn during the summer but are also drawn to summer pleasures, soccer, and young women. Konstantin cannot accept their lack of commitment and constantly harangues them to work harder, which only makes them sullen. He too is frustrated and unhappy; we hardly see him smile or laugh during the whole film. 

One chance at enlightenment comes from a student, who says he quit striving when his early promise in chess was eclipsed by a younger but more brilliant player. He adds, “we must be realistic…I am not a genius. That’s it…it’s the same in science. What’s the point of being a scientist if you are not a genius?” This seems to impress Konstantin, but at film’s end we do not know his future in physics and in life. The film’s write-up describes Konstantin as living in a quantum world that does not mesh with the classical one. I don’t think that quantum physics is the issue. I see Konstantin rather as choosing to live with abstractions remote from ordinary life, but unable to make this satisfying. In contrast, Patrice Jeener in The Mathematics Engraver (Part 1) also lives with mathematical abstraction but says “I’m happier all the time about doing the job I do.”

Strange Particles (2018, Denis Klebleev)

Mathematical thinking has been less dominant in biomedicine than in physics, but it is important in epidemiology to study how infectious diseases spread. Persistence & Vision (2017, Mahalia Lepage and Jeremiah Yarmie) gives a brief but effective introduction to the subject and the application of math to a problem with definite real-world, even life-and-death, consequences. 

The film is narrated by Ryan Sherbo, an earnest looking undergraduate who won an award for his epidemiology research at the University of Manitoba. Accompanied by animations that enhance his comments, he explains how “biomath” can predict how quickly tuberculosis will spread in households. Like all true scientists and scientists-in-training, he feels the emotional rush when the research comes together and you “really feel like you’ve accomplished something.” He moves beyond the science as well to give an important reminder that math-based research (and any other kind) can have a great impact beyond the lab: “The most inspiring the idea that this can really be useful. It’s really about…making sure your research is easy to interpret [so that] nothing gets lost in translation from the math side to the biology side to the social science side to the political side.” 

Persistence & Vision (2017, Mahalia Lepage and Jeremiah Yarmie)

Research can indeed have political ramifications, and math itself can be politicized in the public arena through manipulated statistics and rigged elections. Alternative Math (2017, David Maddox) chillingly comments on our time of “fake news” and “alternative facts” through its wickedly entertaining tale about what happens when the bedrock truths of math come under fire. 

It starts when math teacher Mrs. Wells faces disgruntled student Danny who earned an “F” on his addition test. He thinks 2 + 2 = 22, not 4, and won’t back down even when Mrs. Wells tries to set him right. Danny’s parents show up, call Mrs. Wells a Nazi, a tramp and a bitch for saying her answer is right and Danny’s is wrong, and slap her. The school principal supports them, saying “parents don’t want you ramming your biased views down their kid’s throats.” Crowds demonstrate carrying signs like “God hates facts” while the media call the flap MathGate and interview experts to debate whether the correct answer is 4 or 22. Finally Mrs. Wells is called in to be fired, but she has the last laugh. When the principal offers her two severance checks of $2,000 each for a total of $4,000, she smiles and responds “Wrong! It’s $22,000.”

Alternative Math (2017, David Maddox)

The seven films I’ve reviewed in Parts 1 and 2 are only a fraction of the 32 presented in “The Poetry of Math.” A look at the others will further enlarge anyone’s understanding of math and mathematicians. 

About the author

Sidney Perkowitz writes frequently about science in film and other topics in popular science. His most recent books are Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon; Physics: A Very Short Introduction; and Real Scientists Don’t Wear Ties: When Science Meets Culture, @physp

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