Lisa Hickey looks at the way math is replacing guns as the tool of choice to solve problems in some of the Oscar-nominated films of 2016.
[mild spoiler alert]
I saw three of the films nominated for best picture in the Oscars this year. And I was wondering why I liked those three so much and what tied them together. And as I thought about the similarities, I realized that what I liked was that in all three cases—math was the hero. Or at very least, math drove a key piece of the dramatic revelation.
When I read the book The Martian, that is what I loved most about it—that the main character basically solves every problem he comes up against with math. And his problems are big ones—for one, he has to get himself off of Mars when nobody knows he is alive there. The Big Short was another movie that wowed me. Say what you will about the moral fiber of the main characters—it was a mathematical analysis that no one else could see that drove the storyline. The acting was brilliant. For me, the best part about the acting was that you can almost see them doing the math in their heads in scene after scene. The implications of their mathematical analysis as they figure things out is—and you as a viewer figuring that out with them—is what drives the movie forward. The third movie was Spotlight. And if you saw the movie, you might very well say “what math?” A team of journalists uncover a story of abuse by priests. The story is of a team of journalists fighting the Catholic Church with dogged determination to shine a light on the darkness of abuse. You might have missed the turning point. But how many times has a dramatic exposition been done with a camera move to a close-up of a spreadsheet? I can’t think of one. Yet that was how the team realized the extent of the abuse, and then backtracked to uncover it. They looked at the math. That was how they knew they had a story.
I am not discounting, of course, the very human-ness of all the performances, or the way that the stories were told, or the power of people to fight for what they believed in. I understand that science is never enough, and that there were other tools. But in all cases in the movies I give examples of—they started with math, and math drove key plot points.
And how great is this—that the battles are no longer with violence and weapons and brute strength but with elegant mathematical analysis.
Anton Chekhov said, “If there is a gun over the mantle in act one, by act 3 it absolutely must go off.” He was speaking of the need for every detail to be relevant. In each of these movies—there were no guns. Here’s what was relevant: there was a spreadsheet, there were computer calculations, and there was a guy who figured out mathematically how many potatoes he needed to grow to survive on Mars for three years. There was still just as much dramatic tension as if the gun on the mantle had gone off.
I get there is alway humanity, and humanity is always more important than numbers. I get the desire to see individual strength and courage as the values that are important. They are important. Here, as Publisher of The Good Men Project, one of the things we try to do is to solve the problems of racism, sexism and homophobia. I don’t whip out a spreadsheet when confronted with an angry racist. But I do look for the patterns in systems so that those problems can be solved on a systematic level. “Show me this was systemic” says the Publisher in Spotlight. Yep. I am that publisher too. Of course I love math. I use it every day to figure out how to keep the business alive. There are meetings where I present 30 pages of mathematical analysis to show how each of our systems work. The idea for this article came from a comment I made at Fred Wilson’s AVC blog, the same blog where I one day found myself stalwartly defending spreadsheets. And I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with an aerospace engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “I solve every problem with math. I wish I could solve problems without it. But I just don’t see how it’s possible.” The numbers give us power, they give us insights, they give us ways to create change.
And I think it is really cool that math as a tool is becoming more visible in that way to the general public, and at something like the Oscars. Math is a way to solve problems. Math is heroic.
And I’d sure rather see people in movies using math as a tool than using guns as a tool any day.