Yesterday I went to see to movie Proof, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. It's about a great mathematician who just passed away and the heritage he leaves behind. During his last years he was very ill, or rather insane and he was taken care of by one of his daughters. She is also a very gifted mathematician but had to give up her studies to take care of her father. Now that he is dead she has to face her own life and problems as her order sister tries to help her in her own way and one of her father's students wants to go through his books in the hope of finding some valuable math in between all the crazy scribblings.

It is a very good film and I can highly recommend it. The cast is spectacular and my guess is that Gwyneth Paltrow his getting herself and Oscar for this performance.

After the movie we had a little discussion about mathematics in movies and tv shows. One of the things that this movie does right is that it doesn't try to explain any of the math the characters are working with. All attempts that I've seen to do that have failed miserably. Present day math is just so far away from peoples' comprehension that trying to explain it is doomed to fail. Another movie which deals a lot with math successfully is Good Will Hunting which also never tries to explain it. The math is just there as a backdrop to the story about the characters. The tv show Numb3rs also does this pretty well. All these examples of math used right have their story mostly circling around the characters. It's more drama than math sci-fi.

One temptation is to trivialize the math in a movie just to make it understandable and part of the plot. But while that will appeal to math interested highschool student it looks a bit childish to anyone who's done math at the university level. One example is the movie Pi which I saw recently. I'm not saying that this movie is a total disaster, I thought it was quite OK. But the math part wasn't really that believable.

One of the reasons I went to see Proof was to see how they portrait mathematicians in Hollywood. I was a little afraid that it would be mostly the crazy genious stereotype that was shown. Indeed, both Gwyneth Paltrow's and Anthony Hopkins' characters have a bit of that in them. But the late mathematicians student, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is far from crazy. He is a very sympathic everyday guy with some small geek tendencies. And the movie makes a bit of fun of the geekiness of math students, but it does so in a very friedly way.

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