A Math Professor Consults on a Hollywood Movie

Movie Executive: So, do you have any feedback on the mathematics in the script?

Math Professor: Wait… it had mathematics?

Executive: Yes! That’s why we brought you in and gave you this free lunch.

Professor: Ah, you mean where the bomb counts down from 10 to 1? That was well-done. All the right integers, in just the right order.

Executive: No, no. For example, the villain’s chief scientist uses the secret equation to stop all the traffic in the city.

Professor: Ah… that. Tell me, what is a secret equation?

Executive: Let’s say you wanted to get every car in the city to stop, by hacking into the traffic system and turning the lights to red. What equation would a mathematician use?

Professor: That’s not what mathematicians do.

ExecutiveBut if you did, what would you use?

Professor: Traffic cones.

Executive: No, I mean with computers.

Professor: You’re using “mathematician” to mean a magical combination of a software developer and an evil wizard. I must be honest. I don’t know what methods such a person would use.

Executive: Let me rephrase. Name a type of equation mathematicians care about.

Professor: You mean… like a partial differential equation?

Executive: Perfect. We’ll work that into the dialogue.

Professor: Why am I feeling pangs of professional guilt?

Executive: Next, the scene where the heroic soldier and the gorgeous young professor first start flirting.

Professor: You mean… that was flirting?

Executive: Obviously! There’s the line where he says he’ll “solve all of her equations.”

Professor: What does that even mean?

Executive: You know. Solve her equations.

Professor: The person who wrote that line is deeply confused about either equations or intercourse. I’m afraid to ask which.

Executive: Well, what would you say to flirt with a mathematician? Something playful, and nerdy, but still sexy?

Professor: Ooh! Perhaps… “Hello. Would you like to buy me a drink?” Ha! It is the reverse of the usual scenario, see? You need more good jokes like that.

Executive: This film isn’t a comedy.

Professor: That much is clear.

Executive: Moving on… at the climax of the film, Professor Sweetbody discovers a pattern in the graph that reveals where the hostages have been hidden. Did you have any quibbles with that scene?

Professor: Yes. What ethnicity is the name Sweetbody? I’m not familiar with it.

Executive: We’re trying to book Mila Kunis, so really, it could be anything.

Professor: I see. And what exactly is this graph you describe?

Executive: You know. It shows the data. All of the data.

Professor: Does this data include the location of the hostages?

Executive: Sure, why not.

Professor: So Mila Kunis is able to recognize where the hostages are hidden… by looking at a graph of the hostages’ locations? A professor’s training is not necessary for this. A reasonably intelligent dog should suffice. Or even an undergraduate.

Executive: Fine, then. It’s a graph of other data. You know, cell phone calls, or water usage in the city, or whatever.

Professor: Well, golf courses consume a lot of water. Perhaps Mila Kunis could employ a water usage map to find a golf course.

Executive: But the hostages are in an abandoned warehouse.

Professor: That could be revised.

Executive: Look. All I want from you are a bunch of words mathematicians use to describe graphs.

Professor: What, like adjacency matrix, and bipartite, and k-regularity?

Executive: Yes! Perfect.

Professor: You expect a handful of jargon, taken out of context, to paper over your film’s juvenile misapprehensions of mathematics and technology?

Executive: Pretty much.

Professor: Well, thanks for the lunch. And good job on the bomb countdown.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this–which, if you survived my smudgy doodles, I hope you did–you might also like “Math Experts Split the Check.

22 thoughts on “A Math Professor Consults on a Hollywood Movie

  1. I thought Friday 13th is about dark humor, but this one is pretty awesome!
    It reminded me of the problem that was proposed on the movie Good Will hunting which any 2nd grader can solve and the professor was like it took MIT 2 years to solve, just because the name was fancy.

    • Good Will Hunting is a great example. There’s an awesome scene where they simplify a fraction, and then high-five each other, because simplifying a fraction is only something crazy math geniuses can do.

      • FWIW, Daniel Kleitman (a now-retired professor of combinatorics at MIT) consulted on Good Will Hunting, and I don’t think he was embarrassed at all to be associated with it. (He also appears in the movie, twice: in the scene with the kiss in the coffee shop, he can be seen on the sidewalk outside first walking one way across the screen, then several seconds later walking back the other direction.)

        • Interesting! Didn’t know that. The stuff that appears on blackboards in that movie is very silly, but the bigger picture (what math is, how it’s done, how mathematicians talk and think about their work) is pretty good.

    • Haven’t watched any! I knew some math majors (now full-grown mathematicians) who really enjoyed it. I’ve heard the math is pretty valid; it’s just that, in the real world, your data-gathering methods are so imprecise that the math wouldn’t do much good.

      Somebody else should chime in if they’ve watched thes how, though.

  2. (S01E10)
    Somebody has stolen a truck with Caesium 137. The team
    is worried that they will build a “dirty bomb”. What
    area would be affected?

    – that depends on the amount of explosives used.

    = let’s say a medium sized explosive, like 15 or 20 kg. Let’s say TNT.
    And the amount of nuclear material… (starts writing “X(x,y,z)”)
    You said there were three containers?
    – Right.
    = So… (continues writing ” = Q/(y ubar 6y 6z)…”) we are talking
    500 gram of Caesium 137.
    (continues writing “…exp[-1/2*(y^2/6y^2 + z^2/6z^2)]“)
    * Don’t forget about the wind variable, rain, and specific topography.
    – Try no rain and put the bomb in the city somewhere.
    = no rain…. ok (hectic breathing)
    (writes “=6y” next to “6z”, then crosses out the term z^2/6z^2,
    replacing it by 0)

    (music indicates climax…)

    = (writes on a new line “x = 6y^2 pi / 2K = 25,600″)
    The dispersal area’s going to be about 26,000 square meters.

    – That’s like a tenth of a mile on each side, right?

    = A city block.

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