Friday, July 28, 2006

Maths in the movies

On a train today and saw an advert off in the distance (Scotrail must have cheap rates for posters): "Teach Dieticians About Pi". As far as I could make out, this was an advert encouraging people to consider teaching - specifically mathematics - as a career. Well, why not, cos jings we need them, and none of us is getting any younger. There is a real problem in getting new recruits in the subject. Why? Well, I could mention pay and conditions, I could mention the heavy workload of maths (and English) compared to other subjects, I could mention... Well, you get the idea. But maybe it's a more fundamental problem: we just don't get enough positive role models for mathematics generally in the media. Consider the evidence:

Movies with mathematicians in them:

1. Jurassic Park
Jeff Golblum wears ridiculous glasses, acts kooky and calls himself a "chaos mathematician". A nation looks on incredulously.
Basic message: mathematicians are weirdos who get eaten by cloned dinosaurs.

2. A Beautiful Mind
Russell Crowe wears glasses , acts well barmy and wins a Nobel Prize - though he's still nutso. A nation weeps.
Basic message: mathematicians are weirdos who get weirder.

3. 21 Grams
Sean Penn (no, seriously) plays a Mathematics professor who has an adulterous relationship and, for reasons I can't recall, kills someone. A nation wonders how far Mr Penn can count unaided.
Basic message: mathematicians are murderers. And weirdos.

4. Pi
Darren Aronofsy directs a movie about a young mathematician going mad, who eventually cures himself by taking a Black and Decker to his head. A nation winces.
Basic message: yup, back to the weirdos again.

I could go on. What about TV, you ask? Well, there's a strange US cop-type show with that bloke from Northern Exposure and his wacky, weirdo maths genius brother, called "Numb3rs", and there's Carol Vorderman. Oh, and in a recent Doctor Who episode, the entire maths department of a school turned out to be evil monsters trying to take over the universe.

Now OK I could be missing stuff, but all the same it's a reasonably compelling set of evidence as to why people get the wrong message about the subject. Unless, of course, we are weirdos after all.

Evidence to the contrary, anyone?

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