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Pi Day: 5 Films About Math

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind

Not sure how to celebrate March 14? Pi Day gives us the perfect excuse to watch some of our favourite films about math: here are 5!

Is there a better occasion to watch films about math than Pi Day? Ever since the late 1980s, every March 14th has been observed as Pi Day, an annual celebration of the mathematical constant π. Although the name might sound like pie, it is not a celebration of pie in the culinary sense – that is actually on January 23 in the United States – but of the mathematical Pi. In fact, the first three significant figures of π, as most of us would remember from our high school math classes, are 3,14, so what better day than the 14th day of the 3rd month of the year to celebrate? In November 2019, the day was also officially designated as the International Day of Mathematics by UNESCO. Here is a list of 5 films about math!

1. Hidden Figures

Women stand next to each other in the film Hidden Figures, one of the 5 Films About Math to watch on Pi Day according to Loud And Clear Reviews
Pi Day: 5 Films About Math – Hidden Figures (20th Century)

First on the list, is one of my favourite movies that feature math in their plotline: the 2016 American biographical drama, Hidden Figures. Based on a real-life story, Hidden Figures follows three brilliant African American women who work at NASA at the Langley Research Centre: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Despite the constant systemic racism they experience in their workspace, the three women act as the brains behind one of the most important moments in the Space Race, the launch of an astronaut into orbit. In particular, Katherine turns this monumental operation around as she is able to solve a complex mathematical equation on which the Space Race solely relies.

2. A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe face with numbers in front of it in the film A Beautiful Mind, one of the 5 Films About Math to watch on Pi Day according to Loud And Clear Reviews
Pi Day: 5 Films About Math – Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (Universal)

A Beautiful Mind is another biographical film with maths at its front and centre. This time, the film focuses on the mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), a Nobel Laureate in Economics. When the film starts in 1947, John Nash arrives at Princeton University as a graduate student and the recipient of the Carnegie Prize for mathematics. Some years later, Nash is invited to join some very secretive work in cryptography and later starts questioning every aspect of the reality around him.

3. Good Will Hunting

Matt Damon writes on a blackboard in the film Good Will Hunting, one of the 5 Films About Math to watch on Pi Day according to Loud And Clear Reviews
Pi Day: 5 Films About Math – Good Will Hunting (Miramax)

Much like A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting is also set in a university. This time, it is MIT, where Will Hunting (Matt Damon) works as a janitor, despite his genius-level IQ. The very inciting incident of the movie relies on math from the very beginning: one day, Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) puts a very difficult combinatorial mathematics problem on a blackboard. The problem is meant to be a challenge for the graduate students at MIT, but self-taught math genius Will ends up solving it instead, surprising everyone, Lambeau included.

4. Gifted

A young child writes on a blackboard in the film Gifted
Pi Day: 5 Films About Math – Gifted (Searchlight)

Any good math film has a sequence of the main character solving a complicated mathematical equation on a blackboard: this is true for Hidden Figures, Good Will Hunting, and, of course, Gifted. The 2017 drama film follows Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), a seven-year-old mathematical genius, who lives with her uncle Francis Adler (Chris Evans) in St. Petersburg, Florida. As the film goes on Mary becomes involved in a custody battle between her uncle, who has been acting as her guardian for all these years, and her maternal grandmother Evelyn Adler (Lindsay Duncan), a former mathematician herself.

5. Agora

Rachel Weisz in the film Agora
Pi Day: 5 Films About Math – Agora (Focus Features)

No list of films about math would ever be complete without a film on the first female mathematician. Agora is set in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century A.D. and portrays the story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), the first woman mathematician whose life has been well-recorded, as she teaches her scientific beliefs, which will eventually cost her her life during a time of religious turmoil. Although historical traces of this figure had been somewhat lost in the Middle Ages, Hypatia was renowned in her lifetime for her teachings, as an astronomer and Neoplatonist philosopher, as well as a mathematician.

Despite being all very different films, they all have one thing in common and that is not just their focus on maths. In their own way, each of these movies is able to explain its mathematical component to the viewers, even to those of us in the audience who may not be familiar with the mathematical concepts in question or math at all. And that is already a sign of a great movie, as it is accessible to everyone in the audience rather than just to a selected number of people. Whatever film you end up choosing to celebrate Pi Day, these are all excellent options and, of course, you can enjoy them with a slice of pie, just to make the celebration even better.  

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