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Math, a love story

07/25/02 12:00AM By Dan Rockmore
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(Host) In the last couple of years, the math genius has become a popular subject with movie makers, and recently commentator Dan Rockmore joined the club.

(Rockmore) I like to tell people that one of the great things about mathematics is that a background in math opens doors to all sorts of great opportunities.

Want to design the first great anti-cancer drug? Well, knowing some geometry helps you unravel the twists and turns of the DNA molecule, and knowing something about the mathematics of combinations lets you read the messages in the genetic sequence.

Need a way to keep your credit card number secret while Internet shopping? Yup, you need math - this time the math of number theory to design secret communication codes.

Or maybe you want to make the next great CD player? Then you'll want to know a little bit about the math of bits n' bytes which is signal processing.

Medicine, communications, even the arts - math can open doors to all these things. Oh and there's one more. I've recently discovered that math can provide a road to movie-making!

For the past year and a half, I've been working with local filmmakers Wendy Conquest and Bob Drake. With the support a government agency called the National Science Foundation, we've been making a documentary film on the people, problems, and process of mathematical research. We've been interviewing mathematicians all around the country, trying to get to the heart of what makes mathematicians tick. The result is a film called ``The Math Life".

In making the film I found that I wasn't alone in having a meandering path to a life in math. Mathematics is done by all kinds of people with all sorts of different skills and aptitudes not just the quiet kid in the back who got all the multiplication problems right. Those with a talent for picturing things find their way to subjects like geometry and topology. A love of numbers leads others to become number theorists. A fascination with randomness is the first step on the road to probability and statistics. A desire to understand the workings of the world can be the hook to becoming an applied mathematician.

Now, recent Hollywood movies have suggested that the inside of the head of a mathematician can be a very scary place. But "The Math Life" is no horror flick! Mathematicians are more than just the cartoon mix of genius and arrogance that we usually see on the big screen. Mathematicians experience the ups and downs that accompany any creative endeavor, and their research holds the promise and excitement of discovery.

But, of course, Hollywood did get one thing right among its multiplicity of movie mathematicians. From Good Will Hunting's Matt Damon, through Jurassic Parks's Jeff Goldblum, and of course, most recently, Beautiful Mind's Russell Crowe, it's true - we really are all that sexy.

In Hanover NH, this is Dan Rockmore.


There will be a free screening of "The Math Life" this Friday at Dartmouth's Lowe Theater at 6pm. For more information, visit the Dartmouth College website.
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