March 14 is the day everyone in the world, or at least everyone here in the U.S. (where we put the month before the day), pauses to celebrate that most constant of mathematical constants, that most transcendental of transcendental numbers. Of course, I’m talking about Pi, also known as “π,” also known as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, also known as 3.14 (give or take a trillion digits). 3.14…3/14…March 14. Get it? Yeah, me neither. Never had much of a head for math.
Nevertheless, this Pi Day thing seems to be real. They even have a website where you can buy a t-shirt and watch a rap video.
All this hubbub got me thinking about my favorite books, movies and even songs that feature a heavy dose of math. You can look for these at your local HPB and do some math when you calculate how much money you’re saving.
Life of Pi
This 2001 novel by Yann Martel and its 2012 film adaptation tell the story of Piscine “Pi” Patel, an Indian boy who adopts the nickname Pi after kids make fun of his real name. That’s a pretty great story right there, but things get more interesting when Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger, a hyena and a zebra. Okay, there’s actually not too much math in this story, but it’s a great read, the movie has amazing animation and the kid’s name is Pi.
This is a book about human computers. No, it’s not sci-fi; it’s the non-fiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly that inspired the acclaimed movie about female African-American mathematicians at NASA. They were called human computers because, like, they did computations. Set during World War II, the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement, the book profiles four ladies who were among the space program’s unsung heroes.
A Beautiful Mind
This Oscar-winning film by Ron Howard, based on a book by Sylvia Nasar, stars Russell Crowe as John Nash, a math genius and Nobel Laureate who also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Dave Bayer, a math professor at Barnard College, was a consultant on the film, and even has a cameo. Eat your heart out, other math professors!
Finite Mathematics and Calculus with Applications
Of all the math-y things listed here, this book from 2009 might be the most math-y. The characters are a little flat and under-developed, but the story more than makes up for it. Margaret Lial, Raymond Greenwell and Nathan Ritchey take us on a ride all the way from Polynomials to Special Probability Density Functions. Much like David Foster Wallace, they use a lot of footnotes, so I think it’s kind of a postmodern thing they’re going for. Can’t wait to see this one adapted for the big screen.
Good Will Hunting
In this movie, Matt Damon plays a janitor at MIT who is crazy good at math. One night, while sweeping up, he solves a problem left by a professor on a chalkboard. He also gets in fights, falls in love with Minnie Driver and participates in therapy sessions with Robin Williams. This movie celebrates its 20th anniversary later this year. Dang, I’m old. Here’s a video about one of the actual math problems in the movie:
Darren Aronofsky, who later made Black Swan, directed this 1998 psychological thriller about a paranoid New York City mathematician who discovers a mysterious 216-digit number with the help of the trusty supercomputer he built in his apartment. The number, of course, holds the secrets of the universe. Or at least the secrets of predicting the stock market.
“Pi” by Kate Bush
Just so we don’t leave music out of this list, here’s a song from the artsy British singer Kate Bush. This is from her 2005 album, Aerial, and much of the song is Bush just singing the digits of Pi, some say incorrectly. It’s not going to displace “Running up That Hill” as her best song, but you have to give Bush props for keeping things weird.
What would you add to the list?