Math and Movies: White House Panel

On October 28, 2016, the white house hosted a panel on “Math and the Movies” where they spoke with DJ Patil, US chief data scientist, Andrea Hariston,  applied mathematician from NSA, Jeremy Irons, cast member from “The Man who knew Infinity”, and Ken Ono, the math advisor on the film. After the panel, they screened, “The Man who knew Infinity.”

“The Man who knew Infinity” is a film chronicling part of the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician who is famous for 3 books of beautiful equations that he wrote down with no proofs. This film focused on Ramanujan’s struggle to break into Western mathematics. Whatever you may feel about the portrayal of mathematicians in this film, there are many things about this film which are to be lauded. For example, one cannot argue with the real struggle to be accepted by the mathematics community. I think this is something the film features quite well. It highlights the different backgrounds of the characters and gives some dimension to their struggles.

“An equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” -Srinivasa Ramanujan

The screenwriter/director, Matthew Brown, was especially concerned about presenting the movie from an non-western point of view. In fact, “Colonialism and that white savior ideas are things Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, and myself wanted nothing to do with, ” said Brown in a Tribeca interview. The panelist talked about this as well. How can we change culture to open up mathematics to more people? How do we draw young people into mathematics?

Ken Ono spoke about a recently created program, The Spirit of Ramanujan Talent Search. They have been searching the planet for undiscovered math talent. Their website is up and taking in applications. In fact, they have already found several young mathematicians to give awards to.

And just between you and I, panelist DJ Patel is amazing. He’s actually my new favorite person because he studied theater in undergraduate just like me! On mathematics, DJ Patel said, “I can’t imagine a more powerful foundation on which you can build so many different things.”  He spoke passionately about how mathematics can teach someone “how to be clever”, how to solve problems in creative ways.

“It’s about the art. It’s about the humanity of making creativity come alive. It’s not the stodginess of just a set of formulas and equations.” -DJ Patel.

Patel spoke passionately about changing the culture of mathematics. For those we see who have an interest in mathematics, Patel says that we should take a moment to say, ‘that’s cool. That’s awesome.’ because “that is going to systemically change the trajectory about how we think about [mathematics]”. I couldn’t agree more.  Let’s celebrate our mathematicians instead of marginalizing their talents. So DJ Patel, if you are reading this, can we be friends?

DJ Patel also presented first math homework problem to be given by the white house. They call it out with the twitter handle: #mathmovies. Actually, this is an amazing hashtag where you can find some fabulous gems like this response to a RedBox post about math movies:


Math culture is unique. There are problems associated with the culture of genius. “One of the biggest misconceptions in mathematics is that you have to be a genius to be a mathematician,” said panelist Andrea Hariston.  There are also problems associated with Western culture of rigor and structure.

“I think I’m a successful mathematician mostly because I’m resilient.” -Andrea Hariston

The panelists also call out the upcoming movie, “Hidden Figures.” Hidden Figures (trailer out now!) is about young female african american mathematicians who work with NASA to get Americans into space. As Andrea states, “Representation Matters.” From a personal stand point, I can not tell you how excited I am for the release of Hidden Figures.

Speaking of films, Jeremy Irons, the actor who portrayed G.H. Hardy in the film said,  “pure mathematics is rather similar to poetry…it’s something you search for.” Irons said he learned this from reading some of Hardy’s essays. And this is something that I find amazing. How an actor can, without any previous interest in mathematics, see the beauty in the math? Or perhaps I should say, he can see the beauty of mathematical thought and passion despite the mathematics. I think this is very similar to Ramanujan’s awe of mathematics, “An equation has no meaning unless it expressed a thought of God.” Those are Ramanujan’s words.


The recording of the panel is also available at


About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of
This entry was posted in Communicating Math and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Math and Movies: White House Panel

  1. Pingback: Math in the Media: October 2016 | Social Mathematics

  2. Pingback: Hidden Figures | Social Mathematics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s