Movies and Math Help Make Global Connections

Mathematics is a truly universal language and by its very nature is enriched by, and historically grew because of, the contributions of scholars from around the world, from the Greeks, the Arabs, the Hindus and the Chinese, just to name a few. It therefore has natural connections with the themes of global education and diversity that are so crucial for our students to develop global competencies and grow into citizens of the world, and that our schools strive to foster.

The recent movie The Man Who Knew Infinity offered one great opportunity to explore those connections. Based on one of my favorite books about mathematics, a biography with the same title by R. Kanigal, it is the story of the meeting of two very different people: Hardy, the white, Cambridge educated, systematic student of mathematics, and Ramanujan, the Brahmin, poor, self-taught, college drop-out, and extraordinarily creative lover of mathematics. Two worlds, two cultures, two ways of doing mathematics—these two men, together, produced mathematics of such beauty and depth that their results are still mined by scholars in our times.

I offered my students the opportunity to go watch the movie and submit a short response as a graded homework. Although this assignment was not required, as more girls saw the movie and reported back to their classmates how much they enjoyed it, the number of students interested grew. I was particularly impressed by the variety and depth of the students’ observations and what they got out of this experience.

Sample student responses.

 Sample 1
 Sample 2

Several parents also took the time to write to me. For example, one parent wrote, “Our whole family went to see The Man Who Knew Infinity Sunday morning and thoroughly enjoyed it. What an incredible story about what Ramanujan accomplished in the face of racism and the first World War. We were glad you mentioned the movie to the girls and gave us the opportunity to have a nice family outing on a rainy morning.”

This year alone, quite a few movies have furnished the opportunity for this type of enrichment; for example, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. Commonly found databases of past movies and shows (for example, The Numbers) could also be useful to integrate global competencies and math and see the spectacular applications of math to all aspects of life.