two mathematical journeys
Mathematics is an enormous playground of mental constructions, all of them discovered or created by the human mind. The strange thing is that mathematical discoveries actually reflect truths about the real world. Even more intriguing is that most of mathematics is a vast unknown waiting to be discovered. For some time, the people who work in this field have been my favorite subjects. I am convinced that mathematics is the closest humans will ever get to unlocking the secrets of the universe.
The idea for "porridge pulleys and Pi: two mathematical journeys" came out of meetings at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) at Berkeley in 2000. Three prominent mathematicians at MSRI, David Eisenbud, Joe Buhler, and Bob Osserman, were looking for ways to let the public know about some of the more interesting people associated with the institute. They had seen my film "N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös", and thought that the balance between portraying a human being, ideas, and the more difficult area of conveying mathematical concepts on film, could be applied to the creation of a film about two important researchers at the top of their field. The film is a glimpse at what mathematicians are doing in our own time. Vaughan Jones and Hendrik Lenstra are both working today, producing new mathematics with an impact on everyday life. On one level, the film is a simple portrait of two men, and an attempt to describe some of their work for non-mathematicians.
There are several stereotypes and beliefs about mathematicians that "porridge pulleys and Pi" aims to dispel. First, I wanted to show that there is no single type of person who can become a mathematician. With Jones and Lenstra we can see individuals from very different backgrounds making important contributions to the field. I hope that the film will convince people that given the right training, any child with the aptitude can turn into a mathematician. This is why there are sequences about the childhood experiences of both men, and why each explains what propelled him to pursue mathematics. Jones and Lenstra are the opposites of the eccentric nerdy type who has come to characterize the popular conception of what mathematicians are like. Another cliché I hope to debunk is that of the tortured genius. This film contains clear evidence that mathematicians derive a great deal of pleasure from their work.
For a filmmaker, working with mathematicians is also a great source of pleasure. It is the only group I know, where the answer "I don't know" is met with excitement and motivation rather than with irritation. I hope that some of this excitement and passion filters through the film to audiences.
- George Csicsery, 2004