We all have favourite movie characters, but who is your favourite fictional mathematician?
It is quite difficult to compile a list of fictional mathematicians. Scientists are often portrayed in films — usually as mad — but there are very few who are specialised mathematicians. Here at Plus, we have come up with a list that we think covers most well-known fictional mathematicians, although it is debatable whether some are even mathematicians at all! We are asking for your
opinion — who is your favourite?
Have we missed yours off the list? Please leave a comment and let us know. We will write a biography of the character who wins the poll.
If you're thinking about fictional mathematicians in print, there are quite a few others who might make the list. How about the title character from Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis (you can read a MAA review by Keith Devlin at http://www.maa.org/reviews/petros.html)? Or Daisy Love from Jeff Noon's Nymphomation? Hobbs Baranov from William Gibson's
Pattern Recognition? Or the narrator from The Oxford Murders, recently also made into a film?....
It was written that: 'He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature
with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.
But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London....'
'Is he not the celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book
which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there was no man in the scientific press capable of criticizing it?'
Please may we have a simple .cgi voting page for this poll? I hate having to install plugins, particularly those which take up a lot of cycles like flash.
He's not fictional (prof. Comeau, the Stellan Starsgard character, is) but I like Matt whoever's question "who's the most famous living American pure mathematician?" in Good Will Hunting. The answer is Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
My initial inclination is to vote for Yakima, the hero of Greg Egan's Diaspora, but that's because I really like the book as a whole. Another candidate, a great contrast with the former, would be Myron Aub who rediscovers mental arithmetic in Asimov's The Feeling of Power. More reflection is required.
There's also Kate Gunzinger from the film 'It's My Turn' (see here) - this film is in fact given by Weibel in his Introduction to Homological Algebra as a reference for the Snake Lemma, a proof of which opens the film.
I wouldn't call here my favourite character but Barbara Sabich - Harrison Ford's wife in Presumed Innocent - is a mathematician (I think we hear this in the scene where she complains about how long it has taken her to get tenure).
A minor, behind the scenes character, but one without whom there would be no story.
The list is definitely too "english-centered". You are missing many fictional mathematicians in non-English spoken movies. So, the question of the poll should be: "Who is your favourite English-speaking fictional mathematician"?
E.g.: have you seen the Argentinian movie "Il treno di Moebius" ("The Moebius train")?
One of the mathematicians on your list is Max Cohen from the film 'Pi' (played by Sean Gullette), but I'd prefer to nominate Cohen's mentor in the same film, Sol Robeson (played by Mark Margolis). When Cohen becomes obsessed with finding patterns in the digits of pi (π), Robeson quite rightly rebukes him, saying that he's no longer a mathematician but rather a numerologist.
There is at least another mathematician in another Michael Crichton's novel: Harry Adams in Sphere (also a movie) and his character is important in the plot.
Other side comments:
a) I concur that this list looks very english literature-centered but it is likely to evolve as more comments and references are made.
Two recent examples of novels with mathematician characters:
- Hans Singer in "Villa des Hommes" by Denis Guedj (closely copied from Cantor's character)
- Arthur Seldom in "Crímenes imperceptibles" (aka "The Oxford Murders")
b) John Nash is of course a real person, but his image in the Holywood dramatization of Silvia Nasar's pseudo biography A Beautiful Mind is a complete fiction who never existed except in the script of the film.
There are numerous references to fictional mathematicians and mathematical fiction at http://math.cofc.edu/kasman/MATHFICT/. I would vote for Professor James Darnley McCorkle in "The Chair of Philanthromathematics" by O Henry.
To the anonymous commenter who said "have you seen the Argentinian movie "Il treno di Moebius" ("The Moebius train")?" The answer is that we have tried and tried to see this film but cannot get a copy for public screening in the UK. It would have been part of the Edinburgh Maths at the Movies Festival last April if it had been possible. I can't speak for the USA but it's been seen by very few
people in the UK because it's only ever been screened at few film festivals shortly after release.
This film, however, is based on one of my all time favourite short stories "A Subway named Mobius" by Prof. A.J. Deutsch at Harvard. It was actually written about the New York subway system. Tupelo, the topologist who solved the problem, should be on the voting list but I'm afraid he was originally an English speaking New Yorker.
Rudy Rucker's work is stuffed full of fictional mathematicians! His 2006 book "Mathematicians in love" features Bela Kis and Paul Bridge, postgrads at Berkeley and a higher world of mathematician cockroaches!
My favourite is a much earlier work "White Light" whose hero, Feliz Raymond, stays in Hilbert's Hotel and visits Cantor's Continum. If he was on the list he'd have got my vote.
See www.rudyrucker.com to find out more
MP Emily Thornberry, eBourbaki founder Eliana Hechter, and contest winners Peter Eccles, Tom Hudson, and Ryan Lothian.
eBourbaki has announced the winners of its 2008 Bicycles in London mathematical modelling competition. The contest took place in early May, and students were asked to model a network of low-cost rental bicycles for the City of London. Students were able to explain mathematically why some schemes in Europe have
succeeded while others have failed. For more information on the contest, see our story on the Plus blog
The winning team was presented with a check for £1000 by Emily Thornberry MP, head of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling.
The winning team included:
Peter Eccles, 21, Merton College, Oxford
Tom Hudson, 20, Merton College, Oxford
Tom Eccles, 20, Trinity College, Cambridge
Ryan Lothian, 20, Merton College, Oxford
Caroline Roney, 20, Merton College, Oxford
The winning team created two mathematical models. The first described commuter flow based on publicly available data from Transport for London. They recommend that 12 large bicycle stations be placed near rail stations in Central London together with a network of 250 smaller stations distributed throughout the West End, the City of London, and the area in between. The second model focused on
the estimated use of a network of 50 stations in the proposed configuration to determine the number of bicycles appropriate for these stations. Ultimately, the team proposed an average of twenty bicycles at a small station.
eBourbaki director Eliana Hechter said, "The winning team created a mathematical model that could serve to help the City of London construct a network of rental bicycles that serves commuters most efficiently. Mathematical modelling is a way of 'testing the system' to be confident that the system, once instituted, will actually work effectively. We hope the City will work with the winners and
consider using their programs in the network design."
eBourbaki organizes mathematics modelling contests for students of mathematics, computer science, and engineering around the world to provide solutions to optimization problems, addressing some of today’s greatest public goods issues. The policy implications of this contest are great and the results have been forwarded to Transport for London. The Bicycles in
London contest followed the successful Shade in Phoenix contest in conjunction with the City Planning Department of the City of Phoenix, Arizona.
eBourbaki’s next contest will involve predicting the results of the next U.S. presidential election this October. We'd all like to know that result.
No matter how many friends you have on Facebook and MySpace, you won't have more real-life friends than the average person. Using mathematics to model online social networks is an evolving field, with techniques that have been used to model human interaction, such as network modelling, moving into the online world. Users of online social networks tend to build up long lists of "friends" with
whom they only occasionally interact, if at all. Given that we can maintain more weak relationships online than we can in real-life, it is an interesting question to ask whether or not online social networks create as many close friendships as in real life. According to Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University, the answer is no, and in this there is an interesting scientific and social point to
Estimating a war death toll is usually done by a mixture of eyewitness reports and media coverage. This involves extrapolating large numbers from sketchy data — read more about how this is done in the Plus article Body count.
Uppsala University in Sweden, and the Peace Research Institute in Norway, both keep death toll records estimated from media coverage, but Obermeyer's study suggests that the recorded death toll for 20th century wars could have been up to three times higher than they record.
The researchers looked at the death toll estimates gathered by the World Health Organization (WHO) — these numbers are extrapolated from telephone interviews with individuals with family members who may have died. This method is considered to be more accurate than gathering information from media reports.
In most cases, the WHO surveys recorded much higher numbers of dead than the Norwegian and Swedish databases. For example, the WHO figures suggest that more than twice the number of people died in Vietnam than previously thought — currently recorded at two million. On average, across 12 countries, the WHO figures are three times bigger. If true, then the average annual death toll for wars
between 1985 and 1994 was 378,000.
During the 50 years covered by the study, Obermeyer suggests that there were 269,000 deaths in Bangladesh and 141,000 in Zimbabwe — nearly five times more than previously thought — and conflicts in Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Georgia and Laos are also estimated to be more costly than previously thought. However, in other countries, such as Burma, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Namibia and The Philippines, the
death tolls dropped.
The study also found that a controversial report in 2006, which estimated the death toll after the invasion of Iraq at 655,000, may have been an over-estimate. You can read more about this study in the Plus article Body count. Obermeyer revises this number down to 184,000.
One downside of the study is that it only counts conflict fatalities and not deaths that have arisen from infectious diseases, which often afflict poor countries after war.
If we are to believe the latest signs from outer space, the local aliens are keen mathematicians. A new crop circle appeared on the 1st of June this year in a barley field near Barbury Castle in Wiltshire, England, measuring 150 feet in diameter and correctly representing the first 10 digits of the irrational constant pi.