Double follow-up: pass the popcorn

After a long and earnest (probably still on-going) discussion in comments about plagiarism, collaboration and communication far too interesting and labyrinthine for me to sum up (though who knows, maybe I can keep the cycle of followup posts going), we finally got a truly exciting and original idea:  when is somebody gonna make a movie about Ed Witten?  If string theory is confirmed at CERN, it would make a great ending (and if it isn’t, Hollywood can just change the story).

EDIT: Of course, I wrote this when my brain was too addled by thinking about string theory and the ethics of collaboration to be thinking straight.  Witten is a lovely guy, and deserves better than to have anybody make a movie about him until he decides it’s a good idea.  Besides, Thomas is right; Grothendieck is where it’s at, movie-wise, at least.


23 thoughts on “Double follow-up: pass the popcorn

  1. I don’t think Witten’s life lends itself to standard Hollywood dramatic formulas. I haven’t heard of any triumphs against all odds against the scientific establishment, or struggles with crippling mental illness. He’s just someone who consistently comes up with really good ideas and writes them down. Besides, I think he was already featured in a NOVA documentary.

    If I’m not mistaken, string theory is not yet at the stage where one can make predictions that can or cannot be confirmed by LHC experiments. I think we hope to see a Higgs boson and some evidence of physics beyond the standard model, which may or may not be described by strings.

  2. When is somebody gonna make a movie about Ed Witten?

    That project faces a big obstacle: Witten himself. He has often deflected attention away from his persona and to mathematics and physics. And would you blame him? Maybe a movie would be a good way (or a bad way) to honor his memory, but as long as he is still alive and active, he is surely against it.

    If string theory is confirmed at CERN, it would make a great ending

    But CERN probably won’t confirm string theory, only at the most supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is an important prediction of string theory, but one tusk does not confirm the whole elephant.

  3. He has often deflected attention away from his persona and to mathematics and physics.

    [citation needed]

    Really though, I’m curious more about his deflection “to mathematics and physics” more than anything else.

  4. I apologize that I don’t have a good citation in this case, and it also looks like it may not be true all of the time. But I remember hearing or reading somewhere that Witten strongly feels that the physics itself is more the point than his own life story. I also don’t have the original phrasing, and there may have been different comments in more than one place.

    But certainly it’s difficult to find much like a Witten version of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” and I think that that’s not an accident.

    I also don’t mean to single out Witten on this point. A lot of people are like this and it can be a wise philosophy.

  5. W. Scharlau’s Grothendieck biography has been one of the most fascinating non math texts I read the past years

    Is there any English translation available online?

  6. Supersymmetry is not a prediction of string theory, it’s a postulate.

    In a way, yes. However, there are both bosonic and supersymmetric versions of string theory, and only the latter is thought to have any chance of either being self-consistent or yielding fermions as we see them in real life. So it’s better to say that string theory requires supersymmetry rather than that it postulates it (arbitrarily). If a theory requires something, then that is a way of predicting it.

  7. On the subject of movies: There already are some movies with mathematicians and with higher mathematics. But I would rather see a movie that treats mathematics and mathematicians with respect than any more that merely have them. To pick a negative example, the movie Good Will Hunting treats mathematics with only bare respect (since Will Hunting’s genius work is actually undergraduate combinatorics) and mathematicians with outright contempt.

    Maybe the movie Proof and the TV series Numb3rs do the best. They try very hard to treat their subject matter with respect and on balance I like them. But they also run up against certain limits (pun not intended) and maybe these limits are insurmountable.

    But then again there is Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. Donald Duck is arguably a more convincing mathematician than either Catherine, Charlie Epps, or Will Hunting. (I suppose that Epps is a decent second.)

  8. Using the logic of #10, string theory predicts every known physical phenomenon. Because surely a correct string theory is required to be consistent with reality :)

  9. These days it is not hard to find string theorists who claim that string theory predicts that the LHC will not see supersymmetry. The argument is that in the “landscape” of all known string theory vacua, more of them have supersymmetry broken at the Planck scale than have it broken at the TeV scale. According to this line of reasoning the huge ratio of the Planck to electroweak breaking scale is explained by anthropics (if it weren’t so, we wouldn’t be here), not supersymmetry.

    Based on what I’ve seen over the years, Witten is not interested in discussing his persona or experiences, and would much rather talk about math and physics. I can’t imagine there’s ever going to be a book of anecdotes about him a la Feynman, certainly not with him as the source. Definitely a hard nut for a filmmaker to crack, Grothendieck is much much more promising.

  10. The best Grothendieck’s biography is still his own “Recoltes et Semailles” — a very long one, but worth reading if you have some free time. And it seems to me that making a movie about his life is not so simple. At least, it should be discussed with the main hero who is still alive and with his closest friends and students. The reaction may be completely unpredictable!

  11. I would be very happy if the genre of tales of messed up mathematicians were replaced by a new genre of tales of well-adjusted mathematicians. In particular, I hope that they don’t make a movie about Grothendieck any time soon. He has had more than his share of personal problems, and I view that more as a banal loss than as a great story.

    With Nash it was, “He contracted schizophrenia; how fascinating, let’s make a movie about it!” The movie was a success, and the related Proof was not bad either, but these movies exploited Nash at the same time that they honored him. And they were misleading about mathematics as a profession.

    If I were to pick a well-adjusted modern mathematician who deserves to be a movie subject, it might be John von Neumann. It wouldn’t interfere with his life, it wouldn’t demean him (or certainly it wouldn’t need to), and I don’t think that he would have minded.

  12. I’m curious: is the Wikipedia article on von Neumann at all accurate? It sure doesn’t make him sound like Hollywood material.

    I like a dirty limerick as much as the next guy (OK, probably more), but what’s described in Wikipedia sounds more like sexual harassment.

  13. Anton, that discussion would be easier said than done. In fact, I know someone who tried doing just that.

    This was a young documentary filmmaker who’d been told by one of his film school friends (whose father was a prominent mathematician I won’t name) about Grothendieck. He thought it was fascinating, so he started to work tracking the man down. He managed to find out where Grothendieck was living, rented equipment, hired a cameraman, and they set out to get the interview.

    When they approached the house, Grothendieck was already outside the front door. He waited until they had closed the truck’s doors before raising his shotgun and opening fire. They hurriedly opened the doors, climbed back inside, and tore out of there, never to return.

  14. The most damaging comment in the personality section for von Neumann is marked “citation needed”, but cursory Google searches bring up only circular citations to Wikipedia and equivalent. No matches in Google Books or Google News. Maybe von Neumann actually said this, I dunno, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    Another damaging remark in this Wikipedia biography is that von Neumann wanted a preemptive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. In this case there is a citation, but the one that I could double-check (Macrae) doesn’t say the same thing.

    I did read in a biography of von Neumann that he looked at women’s legs too much, sometimes to the point of rudeness.

    I suspect that in these passages, the Wikipedia biography is sort-of correct but not quite fair. Most people are obnoxious or offensive from time to time. I have no sense that von Neumann repulsed right-thinking people in general, the way that for instance Edward Teller did.

  15. I would rather a film (or series) about mathematics than one about mathematicians. I don’t know about all of you, but I care more about math than mathematicians and find a mathematical idea infinitely more beautiful and fascinating that the person behind it.
    Here is a fantasy, based on an anime I once saw. Note that as an anime fan I see anime as the natural vehicle for making something really interesting about mathematics.
    A dark, disturbing, but cute series which highlights mathematical concepts, one per episode. You’d have proof by contradiction… proof of something being unsolvable or unprovable (e.g. Galois or Godel)… countable and uncountable infinities… topologically slice and non-slice knots (the game of 3 and 4 dimensions is extremely attractive)… the Collatz problem… hyperbolic geometry…
    It would be entertainment rather than “teaching”… you’d have the lonely pink-haired schoolgirl walking through an empty moonscape haunted by Fadeev-Popov ghosts and infested with Kuperberg’s spiders, having some kind of gothic adventure which illustrates the concept. Done so you can appreciate it whether or not you understand the math.

  16. “anime as the natural vehicle for making something really interesting about mathematics”

    sounds like a fascinating continuation of visualizationings like Hilbert, Cohn-Vossen “Anschauliche Geometrie”, Fomenko’s “Visual Geometry and Topology”, or the “Topological Picturebook”. Klein’s book on 19th century mathematics mentions some projective geometers who darkened the lecture halls to support the students visualizations of the described constructions – short films may have worked better.

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