23 February, 2009


Many mathematicians complain that members of our profession are portrayed in films as uncommon, unattractive nerds, or as crazy, obsessive loons. Some go so far as to argue that this causes a flight of talent from the profession towards "sexier" fields.

I don't personally see the problem with this, perhaps because I have seen myself since childhood as both an uncommon, unattractive, untalented nerd and a crazy, obsessive loon. We can't all be Kevin Spacey, after all.

He shows men of will what will really is.*

Comes now the movie 21 to portray several people who are good at mathematics as sane, common, and especially attractive hipsters.—Well, except for two of them, who lay on the chubbier side of the spectrum and can only gaze longingly at the girls. And, okay, a third is a kleptomaniac, but this is supposed to be funny. Everyone else is dashingly handsome, sexy, and talented. And these mathematicians regularly visit casinos and use their wits to outsmart the system, grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars, frequenting the strip clubs, and using their story to impress a professor whose help is needed to get into Harvard Medical School. The head of the operation is even played by—I set this up clumsily, didn't I?—Kevin Spacey. His character spends more classroom time sliding chalkboards around than writing on them. I don't think he wrote on a single chalkboard throughout the entire film.

I don't know what my colleagues in the profession think of the film, but in case you're wondering, these things do happen. There are mathematicians who are talented, attractive, and just like regular folk. (Read, "not nerds".) There are also mathematicians who use their skills for great fun and profit. One of my fellow grad students claimed that his knowledge of the probabilities of each poker hand contributed to more than $10,000 or so in online earnings. (Sorry, ladies, he's married.)

As for the rest of us chumps in the office, we earned a little more than that during the nine months of the school year, and how? By the leisurely pastime of bashing our brains out while trying to solve unsolved problems. No one makes films about that.

And you wonder why people choose non-mathematical careers.

* Verbal Kint's description of Kevin Spacey Kaiser Söze, from the movie** The Usual Suspects. The photo's from Wikimedia.

** While typing this, I discovered that Firefox's spell checker thinks that Firefox and movie are both misspelled. It suggests "move" for "movie" and "Internet Explorer" for "Firefox".***

*** Haha, just kidding: it actually suggests "Firebox" for "Firefox".

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