MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
Matt Brown (Screenwriter and Director)
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This biographical film starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as Hardy is based on the biography of the same name by Robert Kaniglel. Because it is a rather reliable adaptation of that non-fictional book, perhaps its inclusion on this list is questionable. However, there are some intentional variations from the known history which are taken with "poetic license", and in any case the specific dialogue and many other details are obviously the creation of Matt Brown and it is in that sense that I am classifying this as fiction.

The story of the untrained mathematician Ramanujan, his brilliant insights into number theory, his collaboration with British mathematicians Hardy and Littlewood, and his tragic death at a young age are all fascinating, but they are also already well-known to most people with an interest in mathematics. This film will hopefully help to bring the story to a wider audience.

George Andrews has written an informative review of ("report on"?) the film which appears in the AMS Notices.

Contributed by Anonymous

There is mention of a prime counting function, but the main mathematical focus is on a partition counting function. There is even an attempt to explain the notion of a partition. The partition counting function is more a tool to propel what little character development Ramanujan undergoes, rather than something that is explored. A cursory attempt is made to show Ramanujan's own relationship with mathematics. Maths is a present, but is not really developed at all. Since nothing in the film is though, I still consider math to be a main theme.

I don't know how much is known of Ramanujan, but after watching this film it seems like there must be very little source material. This film is poorly written. The characters are 2-dimensional and the whole thing just feels very rushed. Overall it's not terrible, but not good (I expect for the non-mathematically inclined viewer it would be worse).

The emotional high point of the film is when Ramanujan finally achieves the honor of being called a fellow. Hardy works very hard to get the other fellows at Cambridge to grant him this honor which. To me, at least, it seems that this subplot in the film receives a disproportionate amount of attention as compared with the question of whether his mathematical ideas were factually correct. I personally cared much more about whether he really did find a formula for the number of partitions of n than whether this room full of "stuffed shirts" grants him the right to walk on the grass. However, although everyone seeing the film will clearly recognize when that honor is granted, the people I watched the movie with were all unclear about the status of his mathematical claims even at the end of the movie.

Perhaps that suggests that I am overly concerned with mathematical rigor (or, should I use the British spelling and say "rigour"). This was another central focus of the film, and to me at least it is of greater importance. As I understand the history, it was certainly true that Ramanujan made lots of amazing claims but did not offer mathematical proofs to support them, and the movie makes that quite clear. I agree with the viewpoint represented by Hardy in the film: it was important for Ramanujan to learn to be more rigorous in his work both so that he himself could tell which of his ideas were correct and which were not and so that he could convince others of the truth and importance of the ones that were. However, the film did not thoroughly endorse this viewpoint. I think the audience was supposed to at least be sympathetic to the idea that Hardy was ruining Ramanujan by his insistence on mathematical proofs. Strangely, this viewpoint, the idea that Ramanujan should just have been left to "run free", was represented in the film by Bertrand Russell. The co-author of a three-volume set of tomes attempting to provide a firm foundation for arithmetic seems like an odd choice for a person to argue against the importance of mathematical rigor! (Or, is there evidence that Russell ever actually offered such arguments in the case of Ramanujan? I am not an expert on the historical evidence.)

Religion is a theme in much of the movie, between references to Hardy's atheism and also Ramanujan's insistence that the source of his mathematical observations was his goddess. To me, both of these ideas seem to have been misrepresented. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect anything deep to be said about such a controversial topic in feature length film, but I think it would be possible to do better than the cartoonish misrepresentations shown here.

More information about this work can be found at www.imdb.com.
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Man Who Knew Infinity
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
  2. A Disappearing Number by Simon McBurney
  3. Partition by Ira Hauptman
  4. Ramanujan’s Miracles – A Drama To Demystify Mathematics by R.N. Kapur
  5. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  6. One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin (Author) / Christiana Hills (Translator)
  7. The Ishango Bone by Paul Hastings Wilson
  8. The Bed and the Bachelor by Tracy Anne Warren
  9. The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem by Rinne Groff
  10. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
Ratings for The Man Who Knew Infinity:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifGenius, Proving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, Religion,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics,
MediumFilms,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)