Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity: Conversation starters about the upcoming film

Two summers ago, my advisor Ken Ono suddenly jetted off to England to help with the filming of the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity (Click here for trailer).  The film, featuring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons, dramatizes the life of the Indian mathematical genius Ramanujan, focusing on his time at Cambridge working with British mathematician G. H. Hardy in the 1910s.   It is based off of the Robert Kanigel's biography The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan (Amazon affiliate link here). Through Ken, whose role with the film has expanded from math consultant to associate producer, I've gotten to see the movie multiple times already, including at the world premiere in Toronto last September! 

Since the movie is finally coming soon to a theater near you (May 13 is the date I've heard for Atlanta, but other cities may be earlier), the time has come for me to write a post about it. I obviously think it's a great film, but instead of writing a review (I assume you can find many using google), I'm going to give some conversation starters for discussing the film.  Watch it with your kids/students (I'd recommend middle school age and up)!

1. One of the major themes is the relative importance of proof versus intuition in mathematics.  Why are each of them valuable? 

2. Another theme is the importance of reaching out to others and asking for help when you need it.  Ramanujan did this successfully in the beginning of the movie, but struggled once he got to England.  Why? 

3. The film focuses on Ramanujan's work on partitions.  Do you remember the definition? If you need a reminder, the partitions of 4 are 4, 3 + 1,  2 + 2, 2 + 1 + 1, and 1 + 1 + 1 + 1.  So p(4) = 5.  Try to compute a few partition numbers by yourself and look for patterns.  Partitions makes for a great math circle topic, and I think that Integer Partitions by George Andrews and Kimmo Eriksson (Amazon affiliate link here) is a particularly accessible introduction.  

4. Ramanujan was self-taught.  With only a single book, he was able to rediscover much of modern mathematics and push the field forward. Mark Zuckerberg asked (see the end of this clip): "What would have happened if he had had access to the internet?" Of course, the internet didn't exist when he was alive, but what implications does that have today, when more than half of the world still doesn't have access? 

5. Mathematicians are often inundated by letters and emails from amateurs claiming to prove one of the big unsolved problems in mathematics, many of which are challenging to read because they do not follow the conventions that mathematicians are used to.  How much time and effort should we devote to sifting through all of this for diamonds in the rough? Do we have a duty to look for mathematical talent in unlikely places? 

I also wanted to mention The Spirit of Ramanujan Talent Search.  The first stage of it is powered by Expii, and anyone can take part by solving some math problems on their website.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (film).jpg

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