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21 Grams (2003)
Alejandro González Iñárritu

I have not yet seen this film in which Sean Penn portrays a critically ill mathematician. The title is apparently taken from the results of the bizarre (hard to believe and never reproduced) experiments done by Dr. Duncan MacDougall in which he claimed to have determined the weight of a soul by weighing people dying of tuberculosis in 1907.

If you've seen the film and can comment on the role (if any) that mathematics might play in it please let me know! -Alex

Contributed by Steve Jones

I saw "21 Grams" last night in the UK where it has just gone on release. As far as I remember, the scene that explicitly deals with mathematics is, for me, the only weak scene in the whole film (which otherwise is captivating and thought provoking, if not exactly easy viewing) because it is pretty corny. Basically the male heart throb (a mathematics lecturer) is trying to seduce the female heart throb by explaining to her how maths is to do with probabilities, and the extension is to the probabilities of two people meeting each other and then falling in love being pretty slim. That scene aside, the film is very much to do with chance (or is it fate?), the chance event that draws three lives together in a knot that is as tight and tortured as you can possibly get. The most obvious interpretation of the film is that it is a meditation on fate and redemption, triggered by a tragic chance event. My own theory is that on another level it is about who has the right to give or sustain life, or to take it away. Who has the right to 'play God'. Are these things decided by ourselves, those around us, or by chance ... or indeed God.

Contributed by Todd Morman

Aside from the seduction scene that Steve Jones mentions in his review, there's a poignant/poetic scene at the end where the "21 grams" of the title is explained. Without giving away any plot details, a character talks about something overheard - namely, that at the moment of every person's death, the body's weight decreases by exactly 21 grams. There are a few comparisons given (two stacks of nickels, etc). That's it for the math, but it's a small, wonderful, rather dark emotional drama with one of those clever chopped-up timelines (very well-done in this case) and great performances from all.

Contributed by John C. Konrath

This is a dark, disturbing, and depressing film with virtually no math in it. The sole "mathematical" scene borders on numerology. While the storyline is compelling and the characters are interesting, ultimately the most uplifting scene was the ending credits because this meant that the pain was finally over.

More information about this work can be found at
(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 21 Grams
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Morte di un matematico napoletano by Mario Martone (director)
  2. The Last Answer by Isaac Asimov
  3. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  4. Herr Doctor's Wondrous Smile by Vladimir Tasic
  5. The Midnighters (Series) by Scott Westerfield
  6. An Angel of Obedience by John Giessmann
  7. Matrices by Steven Nightingale
  8. Arcadia by Iain Pears
  9. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
  10. Napier's Bones by Derryl Murphy
Ratings for 21 Grams:
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:
1.72/5 (7 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.29/5 (7 votes)

MotifAcademia, Romance, Religion,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)