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Sexing Up Mathematics Does Not Compute (News Analysis)

By Jonathan Farley
Monday December 06, 2010 - 11:16:00 AM

This week saw the North American premiere of Rites of Love and Math, the film by Berkeley mathematician Ed Frenkel. After receiving complaints about the trailer, which features both formulae and naked female flesh, Berkeley's mathematical sciences research institute decided to withdraw its support for the film

This is not the greatest smackdown in the history of mathematics – the Newton-Leibniz debate over who invented the calculus ranks a tad higher – but it may surprise you that it is not even the first controversy involving mathematics and sex. While you may not have realised it when you were studying for your algebra finals, mathematics and sex have come together often. 

The Oxford Murders, starring Elijah Wood and John Hurt, is perhaps the first film that would lead one to put the words "math" and "erotic" in the same sentence; but it follows a trend of portraying mathematicians as "sexy". The hit television show Numb3rs features a mathematician at an American university who has a beautiful graduate student named Amita Ramanujan. Dying for a love story, the writers fashioned a slowly building romance between the math professor and his student, despite my consulting colleague Tony's telling the writers that, in politically correct America, any such relationship would lead to the professor's dismissal. 

In 2005, I received an email from a British producer, saying, "I am currently working on adapting a crime novel based in Oxford for a feature film." I knew the author of the novel: Guillermo Martinez had been a postdoctoral student when I was a graduate student. I knew the setting: the dreaming spires of the colleges as well as the squat, white building – the mathematical institute – set among them. I even recognised the people on whom the characters were based, including my advisor. 

What I didn't recognise was the sex. 

One scene of The Oxford Murders goes Pi steps further than Numb3rs. It features Elijah Wood and his character's beautiful Latina tennis partner vigorously undressing themselves and each other while simultaneously ruining the feng shui of the apartment, as well as devouring various items of food. The scene ends with the eruption of Mount Doom (although, thankfully, this time no one's fingers get bitten off). 

In truth, graduate students in mathematics are more concerned with prime numbers than they are with primal instincts. I did not even kiss a girl until a full two years after I got my doctorate. When I was up late at night in my room at Oxford, as a first-year graduate student, I wasn't dreaming about that cute Zambian girl at Wadham College; I was wishing that if I could but solve Fermat's Last Theorem, I could die happy the very next instant, even if I told no one what I had done. Mathematics, though a predominantly male endeavour for whatever reason – is definitely not testosterone-fuelled. 

There were some mathematics graduate students who did date, of course: I knew an Australian girl and an English boy who were a couple. But their relationship was decidedly – perhaps appropriately – platonic: once, in the tea room, I saw said English boy put his arm around aforementioned Australian girl, while both were sitting down on a couch. She looked at his hand, resting on her shoulder, lifted it up with her own hand, and set it back down again in a place where it was no longer touching her. 

There is a noble lineage of brilliant mathematicians who probably never dated and who never married. The Hungarian mathematician Pal Erdős, one of the giants of the 20th century, found sex painful, conceding, "Basically, I have a psychological abnormality. I cannot stand sexual pleasure." He lived with his mother late into adulthood, and then travelled from university to university, homeless, for the rest of his life, an itinerant monk of mathematics. 

Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy is also a member of this tradition. He once said that the "one romantic incident of my life" was his meeting with the Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Better put, Hardy's collaboration with Ramanujan was a ménage à trois with their mutual mistress, mathematics. 

When I discovered that actor Stephen Fry and director Dev Benegal were making a film about Ramanujan, I arranged to meet with Benegal in New York. I told him that western audiences would want to see a love story. (Ramanujan's wife married him at the age of 10, so that wouldn't do.) Benegal would have to do something like make the Hardy "character" a woman, and then have a steamy scene where "Hardy" and Ramanujan were exploring each other's two-dimensional manifolds. The resulting movie would outrage many in India and probably spark a thermonuclear war – brilliant for ratings. 

Of course, there are exceptions to the "No sex, please, we're mathematicians" rule: Danica McKellar co-authored a paper entitled, "Percolation and Gibbs States Multiplicity for Ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller Models on Z-squared", wrote the bestselling book Hot X: Algebra Exposed, and also modelled lingerie for the men's magazine Stuff. (Full disclosure: she calls me "the incomparable, brilliant Jonathan Farley" in the acknowledgments.) 

Mathematician Clio Cresswell even wrote a book called Mathematics and Sex and was named one of the 25 most beautiful people in Australia by the down under version of People Magazine – so beautiful, in fact, that she once vomited on a man, who then asked her out on a date. And an attractive, funny woman I met on an airplane told me that, once, she was so turned on by her calculus tutor that she walked over and planted a big wet kiss on him. The integral of the exponential function has that effect on some women. 

But I would like to believe that, by and large, you don't find sexy mathematicians like those in Numb3rs, The Oxford Murders, or Rites of Love and Math, because mathematicians don't need sex: our holy enterprise of sorting truth from error, of dealing with what is at the foundation not only of what is, but of what must be, doesn't leave time for romance. 

It is the stuff of which romance is made. 

Jonathan Farley is a professor of mathematics, and member of the Warren Group, campaign advisers of Alvin Greene, the Democratic party's nominee for US Senate in South Carolina. Born in Rochester, New York, Jonathan obtained his doctorate in maths at Oxford University in 1995, and was, during 2001-2002, a Fulbright distinguished scholar in the UK. After various visiting scholarships, fellowships and professorships at numerous academic institutions, including Caltech, Stanford, Harvard and MIT, Jonathan gained tenure at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee in 2003; however, after receiving death threats from Ku Klux Klan-supporting terrorists, Jonathan was obliged to flee his home and job in Tennessee. This piece originally appeared in The Guardian, and is reprinted with permission of the author.