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CINEMATH: Mathematics and the Silver Screen
An MAA Special Presentation by Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith (Park University) gave this MAA Special Presentation on films that contain some mathematics. He showed scenes from several films, all introduced with "Lights, Camera, Action!" In each case, following the film clip, Smith spent time discussing the mathematics in the scene. His first example, from The Wizard of Oz, was what he called "The Scarecrow Conjecture": The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. In the film, the Scarecrow announces his conjecture immediately after the Wizard has handed him a diploma. Smith showed that the conjecture fails to hold for any isosceles triangles, and cleverly pointed out that "The Wizard didn't give the Scarecrow brains, he gave him a diploma."

In a scene from The Mirror Has Two Faces, Jeff Bridges--who plays a math professor--is on a date with Barbra Streisand--who plays an English professor. Bridges is astonished that Streisand knows that nine is not prime and has heard of the Twin Prime Conjecture. The two also discuss teaching which leads to the end of the scene when Bridges asks Streisand about students and class: "How do you get them to stay?"

Jimmy Stewart is the star of an older film, No Highway in the Sky. Stewart plays an aeronautics engineer, who claims that a certain plane design is unsafe. Smith showed a scene in which Stewart explains to a guest that he is corresponding with someone in an effort to prove the Goldbach Conjecture. After hearing the conjecture, the guest asks, "Isn't it a little pointless?" to which Stewart replies, "Quite. That's the beauty of it."

Smith also showed scenes from other films, including Little Man Tateand The Princess Bride, and handed out a list of over 40 movies with mathematical references. He noted that the list is a work in progress, since movies such as the upcoming film Proof continue to be produced.

CINEMATH was presented at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 7, 2004.

--- Mike Breen, AMS Public Awareness Officer

More highlights of the 2004 Joint Mathematics Meetings.


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