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Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero (2016)
Katie May (Writer) / Seth Podowitz (Director)

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

[This] is a cute concept film which uses the fairy tale setting of Princess Rapunzel to articulate some simple but attractive mathematical concepts. In particular, it has a funny take on a desperate prince trying to win the favor of the princess, intoxicated by her hair and its aroma. Rapunzel, in this version, is a science and math aficionado who just wants to do her math in her (ivory) tower and have “her mind free to ponder the great questions of the universe”. She also has what the narrator calls a “useless superpower” to grow her hair at any rate, at will.

To keep the prince at bay, she tells him that he would have to rescue her from the tower by climbing up using her hair as a rope. And then cleverly tricks him by having her hair grow at the exact rate which stops the prince from making progress in his climb up the tower (reminiscent of a problem resembling a similar situation but quite different, in a paradoxical-sounding problem of an ant on a rubber rope.)

The clips makes very clever references to a few concepts like the googleplex, golden ratio and the application of mathematics to problems like the rate at which smoke rings expand. The point where the mathematicians of the kingdom call her proofs beautiful but useless reminded me of G H Hardy :-). And the ending of the clip on a very philosophical concept is enticing. One hopes there is more to the movie out there…

The movie clip has won a few awards but I have not been able to find out if the movie was ever completed. It had a Kickstarter page for donations, and the creators have teased some clips here and there. Would be interesting to see the entire movie implemented. IMDB lists this as a 14-minute film, though youtube has only about 7 minutes of it, and the link at IMDB leads to a defunct page…

As the title suggests, a key point of the plot is that Rapunzel recognizes the need for a notation and theory to describe "nothingness" and hence invents the very concept of "zero". This was apparently inspired by an MSRI lecture attended by May who first wrote this idea into a play before turning it into an animated short film.

Thanks for Vijay Fafat for bringing this work to my attention. I am supposing that the clips available at YouTube were just demos made during fundraising. Sites like this which show its inclusion in film festivals suggest that there is a polished "final product" out there somewhere, but I haven't seen it.

If you have seen the entire film and can write a review or if you can tell me where I can see it, please e-mail or use the "Ratings" link below to share your thoughts.

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Works Similar to Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics by Norton Juster
  2. Donald in Mathmagic Land by Hamilton Luske (director)
  3. Recess (Episode: A Genius Among Us) by Brian Hamill
  4. Dr. No: A Novel by Percival Everett
  5. The Man Who Counted : A Collection of Mathematical Adventures by Malba Tahan
  6. Harvey Plotter and the Circle of Irrationality by Nathan Carter / Dan Kalman
  7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster / Jules Feiffer (Illustrator)
  8. New Tales of the The Absent-Minded Master by Vladimir Levshin
  9. The Thesis of the Absent-Minded Master by Vladimir Levshin
  10. The Travel Notes of the Absent-Minded Master by Vladimir Levshin
Ratings for Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero:
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.


GenreHumorous, Fantasy, Children's Literature,
MotifFemale Mathematicians, Romance,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)