Learning Math at the Movies

I loved the movie Hidden Figures. I didn’t get around to seeing all the movies nominated for Oscars before the show, though I did catch Moonlight and La La Land. I just got around to Hidden Figures. The sheer courage on display in the film was incredible. It brought me to tears.

If you follow the news too closely, you forget about art. News writing, let me assure you, is perfunctory. You try to answer certain questions for the reader about the facts at hand and you pose new questions you think would further illuminate the story. But it’s a serial thing if you do it well, with journalists working together across publications to get to the truth. It takes time and can’t really be appreciated in one sitting.

In movies, you get to the truth through emotions, and you encapsulate it all in about two hours. Hidden Figures moved me so much because of its story first and foremost. But it was adapted from a book and did so much in its two and a half hours that it made filmmaking look easy. It was an easy story to root for perhaps, and because it was historical you knew some of the outcomes in advance, but there was so much of value in the movie. From civil rights to women’s rights to international politics, this movie had everything.

The black mathematicians in this movie were played with such fierceness and empathy. They were whip smart, both the mathematicians themselves and the actors who played them. One gets the sense through them that there was a time when our national science funding was seen as such a priority that groundbreaking individuals such as these were recruited and prized. With funding cuts throughout the decades of the space age, and lack of interest among the public, we’ve become jaded. We expect that “they” will solve all of our technical problems. In the past, young boys and girls were eager to give America the edge and took it upon themselves to do the hard thinking themselves.

We need to celebrate the story portrayed in Hidden Figures and the individuals whose lives were portrayed on screen. But we also have to see how we need to utilize those in the shadows of our technical system. There are smart minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have a lot to contribute to solving the world’s biggest problems. We have to engage these students at a young age. Cultivating the spark of genius takes a lot of practice, but it is in everyone. It is essentially creativity.

Which brings me back to movies. Creative endeavors are so important. We have to get our students engaged in both creative pursuits and technical pursuits. My alma mater, Northwestern University, is doing something like this with interesting cross-pollination between its design school and its engineering school. Creative endeavors are predictors of future creative endeavors. The more we allow ourselves to explore alternatives and test their applicability, in other words the more we put out into the world, the more successful we’ll be come. Such is the conclusion reached by Adam Grant in his book Originals. Those we praise for being innovators are those who produce the most ideas within their most creative period. You have to practice, but being prolific is perhaps a short cut.

I love movies because they produce compelling stories succinctly. Hidden Figures was an inspiring movie on many levels. To produce compelling, succinct ideas, we have to heed the lesson of Hidden Figures by broadening our idea of who makes a mathematician or scientist.

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