The Man Who Knew Infinity: another beautiful mind on screen

As the latest film about academia is released, Matthew Reisz considers the portrayal of mathematicians and other scholars in popular culture

April 8, 2016
Mathematics backdrop
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Mathematicians’ work may be dizzying to most people, but their life stories can be dramatic

There are relatively few aspects of academic life that lend themselves to full-scale cinematic or dramatic treatment.

There are the tales of sexual encounters, usually between staff and students, and sometimes leading to murder, to be found most recently in Woody Allen’s 2015 film Irrational Man. There are stories of outsiders trying to breach the walls of the establishment and often paying the price, for example in the steady stream of films about Alan Turing. And there are stories of genius-akin-to-madness typified by Ron Howard’s 2001 biopic of the mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind. This includes a rather lame attempt to describe Nash’s crucial contribution to game theory in terms of an example where all the men in a bar try to pick up the most attractive woman and succeed only in obstructing each other. It concludes with a characteristic Hollywood flourish, with Nash (played by Russell Crowe) deciding that what really matters are “the equations of love”.

A play about another mathematical theorist who lapsed into madness can currently be seen at the Camden People’s Theatre in London. Lydia Adetunji’s Calculating Kindness explores the extraordinary career of George Price (1922-75).

Price was a wide-ranging thinker who came up with an equation that he believed got to the heart of human nature, since, as his character explains, it “describes how altruistic behaviour is governed by our genes”. We see him turning up off the street at University College London’s Galton Laboratory in 1968 and within 80 minutes being given “a desk, an office and a fellowship”. But if loyalty to one’s kin is the essence of what makes us tick, why has he abandoned his wife and small daughters in New York? And what does it mean for free will and human dignity if “the equation applies to every choice in life. There is no escaping the equation. There’s only the equation.”

Eventually the strain drives Price off the rails: “On 7 June 1970 I give in and admit God exists. Not long after, I mix his only son a martini.” Giving his possessions away to the poor and inviting the homeless into his flat unsurprisingly fails to solve his problems. He eventually commits suicide and is buried in St Pancras Cemetery, less than a mile from where the audience is sitting in the theatre. Adetunji creates a striking play from this poignant story, although she admits that she has sometimes modified the facts. As the narrator explains at one point, the writing and rewriting process works a bit like evolution, eventually homing in on “the fittest version of George Price” to produce the right dramatic effect.

Meanwhile, Hollywood has also found inspiration in another outsider academic with the release of Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, which is released in the UK on 8 April. The events of “the most romantic episode in my life” are described by Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). This concerned the self-taught Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), whose wife suspects he “love[s] numbers more than people” – and who was also the subject of Théâtre de Complicité’s 2007 play A Disappearing Number. When he sends some of his results to Cambridge, Hardy recognises his exceptional talent and invites him to Trinity College.

England in 1914 hardly proves welcoming. Ramanujan is inevitably called “little wog”, told that high-level mathematics is not for the likes of him and finds it difficult to produce the formal proofs of his conjectures required by the mathematical journals. But Hardy, a buttoned-up man of firm habits, is slowly melted and transformed by their encounter. He eventually manages to convince his hostile colleagues to give Ramanujan a fellowship and is devastated by his death in 1920. Although slightly predictable and sentimental, it is hard not to be moved by such a strange cross-cultural intellectual “romance”.

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