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By Peter Crimmins
Friday October 04, 2002

A research center in the hills overlooking Berkeley and the UC campus is where lots of lofty mathematics is pondered. On Sunday the thinkers from the Mathematical Science Research Institute will come down the hill to a theater near you. 

During the CineMath Film Festival at the Pacific Film Archive Theater a collection of both popular and obscure films describing number theories and their inventors. 

Though some might dub CineMath “Cinegeek” for its apparent task of pointing out numerical equations that hold up emotional stories on the screen, math-challenged laypeople who struggle to compute tips for restaurant checks might be surprised to find out that mathematics has nothing to do with needing a calculator.  

“Math is not numbers,” said Dr. Keith Devlin, director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University. “Its is extracting patterns from the universe.” 

The festival presents the drama and fascination those patterns can bring to stories, like the tense black-and-white migraine “Pi” (1998), Peter Greenaway’s stylish serial murders in “Drowning By Numbers” (1988), the Argentinian high-concept thriller “Moebius” (1996), and a handful of documentaries and experimental works visualizing number theories and portraying the shadowy men behind the derivatives and algorithms.  

“Pi” involves dividing a circle’s circumference by its diameter: 3.141592653 … ad infinitum. Its infinite string of decimal places is a curious phenomenon, in that numbers cannot exactly express its value. The plot of “Pi” has the maniacally obsessive anti-hero jacking into his homemade mainframe computer to tap into the secrets of pi, which he believes holds the name of god. 

“It’s a belief that is about 3,000 years old,” said Devlin. The film takes strands of an ancient Hebrew myth that God’s name is hidden inside patterns of numbers and weaves them into hallucinogenic visions of theological purity. “This is not mathematics. It’s numerology,” said Devlin, adding that the “spurious” subject belongs in the New Age bookstore sections. 

However spurious its science, the film was never meant as a treatise on the essence of pi. At the time of the film’s release in 1998, director Aronofsky said “Pi really isn’t a math movie. The hardest math problem in the film is 41+3, and then we give you the answer about 10 seconds later. Most of the math in the movie is the mystical, mythical, bugged-out math you hear about at cocktail parties.” 

“First and foremost, we wanted ‘Pi’ to be a chase movie, a thriller,” Aronofsky continued. “We wanted it to be a 90-minute roller coaster ride that audiences could strap into and be filled with adrenaline.” 

The story of Max Cohen, caught between Mob hitmen and a dangerously aggressive cabal of Hassidic Jews, is a gripping one in part because his insane predilection for extreme math lifts the chase movie into a vaguely plausible intellectual realm. If you let yourself believe, the story scratches at the secret of the universe. 

Devlin said there is a case to be made for studying pi as a troubling definition of randomness. Although the numbers in its infinite decimal places have no pattern to them, the value of pi is not random because it is generated by a formula. Its inside that gap – between the rational and the random – where storytellers find their stuff. 

Of course, storytellers and filmmakers will give themselves scientific liberties to make compelling drama, but for hose who want to faithfully represent abstract mathematical ideas on screen the challenge is dreaming up ways to visualize it. Math theories don’t readily exist in the concrete world. You can’t point a movie camera at math theory.  

That’s the challenge across the board in all the films at Cinemath. The festival will screen experimental works directly addressing mathematical principles. On Tuesdays in October the PFA will screen avant-garde works attempting to represent through visuals and sound, theories, problems and patterns. 

Oakland-based filmmaker George Csicsery struggled with presenting mathematics in his documentary on the most prolific mathematician ever. “N is a Number” is a portrait of Paul Erdos, a nomadic intellectual who was purportedly responsible for over 1,000 published mathematical papers. 

Using animation Csicsery poses the Party Problem, in which all the different ways a small number of people can be connected is pondered. As the number of hypothetical people increase, the possibilities of connection increase at an outrageously exponential rate. Even with visual cues, it’s difficult to follow the logic of the problem. 

“What we were aiming for was not a full understanding,” said Csicsery, “but how quickly things get out of control.” Sitting in the small, cluttered office in his Piedmont home, the veteran journalist-filmmaker called himself a “sociological refugee.” He now has a small handful of projects making films about mathematicians, but in the past he has made films about hookers and romance novelists. 

“They’re actually similar,” he said about romance writers and mathematicians, “they both have managed to escape reality.” Paul Erdos, a house-guest intellectual with no fixed address bouncing around the world from conference to residency to lecture stint, was unencumbered by rent, departmental meetings, and research grants. He just kept flying around the world thinking about math. “He was successful in that he evading things that torment people.” 

The math in Csicsery’s film is minimal. “N is a Number” is about the people behind the theories. Erdos, who died in 1996 at age 83, was so prolific and so globally gregarious that he literally worked with everyone of any importance in the field of math. Csicsery chose his a subject because he was at the center of the mathematical community. Not only did he have a genius for number theory, but a bottomless cache of jokes and anecdotes of mathematicians past and present.  

“There is an interaction between life and ideals,” said Csicsery about the way Erdos chose to live. The film subtly suggests that Erdos’ freedom to think about abstract number theory enabled his peripatetic lifestyle. Mathematics allowed him to skirt real life, and live as closely as humanly possible inside his own castle in the air.