MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Robert Wise (director) / Harry Bates (story) / Edmund H. North
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Contributed by Christopher Wolfe

One must wonder how aliens might communicate with humans when and if they arrive on Earth. In the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the extraterrestrial Klaatu (Michael Rennie) introduces himself to the genius Professor Barnhardt using the universal language of math. After sneaking into the professor’s office and examining a chalkboard full of what appears to be very basic differentiation and integration, Klaatu pinpoints the professors flaw, corrects the equation, and waits for Barnhardt’s response. Following the awkward introductions, Klaatu reveals his expertise in the equation on the board, since this very problem in “celestial mechanics” allowed him to travel to Earth.

The math is later set aside to reveal the true purpose of the story. Klaatu’s mission is not to enlighten men with mathematics, but to warn them against nuclear programs. The primitive scientists have no need for such destructive weapons, so they must disarm in order to prevent the destruction of Earth.

There is really not much math in this movie, but the bit that is there is handled nicely. I like the reference to variation of parameters particularly:

(quoted from The Day the Earth Stood Still)

Copied from scifiscripts.com where the script seems to be available for free:

                                     BARNHARDT
                         You wrote this?

                                     KLAATU
                              (nodding easily)
                         It was a clumsy way to introduce 
                         myself -- but I understand you're a 
                         difficult man to see.
                              (glancing at the 
                              blackboard 
                              reproachfully)
                         I thought you'd have the solution by 
                         this time.

                                     BARNHARDT
                         Not yet. That's why I wanted to see 
                         you.

               Klaatu glances at the work Barnhardt has been doing on the 
               board. Then he points to one of the expressions in an 
               equation.

                                     KLAATU
                         All you have to do now is substitute 
                         this expression--
                              (pointing to a specific 
                              place)
                         --at this point.

               Impressed and interested, Barnhardt tugs at his chin as he 
               studies and weighs the results.

                                     BARNHARDT
                              (slowly, thoughtfully)
                         Yes -- that will reproduce the first-
                         order terms. But what about the effect 
                         of the other terms?

                                     KLAATU
                         Almost negligible... With variation 
                         of parameters, this is the answer.

                                     BARNHARDT
                         How can you be so sure? Have you 
                         tested this theory?

                                     KLAATU
                              (with a slight smile)
                         I find it works well enough to get 
                         me from one planet to another.

Contributed by Brett Wormley

I saw this movie as a young teenager, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I usually pay attention to details I don't understand, like new words or concepts. I mentally logged "variation of parameters" and wondered what it meant, but thought it was just fiction. Ten years later, in my ordinary differential equations class, I finally learned the technique, and told the professor I had been waiting for a decade to understand what Klaatu meant!

An anonymous contributor wrote to point out that Sam Jaffe, who plays the Einstein-like scientist in the film, actually worked as a math teacher prior to becoming an actor and may have played a role in formulating the equations on Barnhardt's blackboard.

More information about this work can be found at us.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 Day the Earth Stood Still
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
  2. Phase IV by Mayo Simon (writer) / Saul Bass (director)
  3. Torn Curtain by Alfred Hitchcock (Director)
  4. The 39 Steps by Alfred Hitchcock (director)
  5. Brain Wave by Poul Anderson
  6. Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Turnabout by Gordon R. Dickson
  8. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  9. The Fairy Chessmen by Henry Kuttner
  10. The Imaginary by Isaac Asimov
Ratings for The Day the Earth Stood Still:
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:
2.2/5 (5 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4.4/5 (5 votes)
..

Categories:
GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAliens,
TopicAnalysis/Calculus/Differential, Mathematical Physics,
MediumFilms, Available Free Online,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)