Mathematics in Popular Culture: the Good, the Bad and the Bogus

April 28, 2017 Francis Finch

As the end of Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month draws near, we take a look at how the subject is represented in popular culture. Can mainstream media influence the perception of shutterstock_128667257_292236676_292236677_256224451.jpgmathematicians and mathematics? Will increased representation drive awareness and engagement for the subject? Or does it really do more harm than good?

Mathematics and popular culture may, at first glance, seem an awkward juxtaposition. Popular culture is mainstream, trendy and appeals to the masses, whereas mathematics can be perceived as difficult, highbrow and only accessible to the academically gifted.

However, mathematics has enjoyed something of a pop culture renaissance over the last 20 years and is now a central theme of many successful films, TV shows, plays and books.

The ways in which popular culture presents mathematics often has a significant impact on public perceptions of the subject. Positive representations can spur fascination and wonder among children and adults alike. One only has to look at the huge influence Star Trek had on youngsters when it first aired in the 1960s, inspiring a new generation of budding scientists and engineers.

Sadly, popular culture can also reinforce negative stereotypes of mathematics and its practitioners, which might prevent people from pursuing an interest or career in the field. Let's examine some examples of mathematics in popular culture, including the good, the bad and, in some cases, the incorrect or 'bogus'.

Mathematicians and “Fitting In”

Good Will Hunting was a huge critical and commercial success. But was it an accurate representation of mathematics?  It has been criticized for perpetuating the idea that gifted individuals often struggle to fit into society. Biographical movies of real-life mathematicians also tend to emphasize these issues, including John Nash's schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind and Alan Turing's eccentricities in The Imitation Game. Good Will Hunting also contains inaccuracies from a practical perspective.

The American crime drama, Numb3rs, was lauded for making mathematics a suitable topic for prime time Friday night viewing, with 10 million Americans regularly tuning in to watch. Academics praised the lead actor’s performance as a socially capable, family-oriented mathematician who is able to apply his abstract skills to multiple real-world scenarios. In fact, many of the episodes are based on actual events.

Mathematics is also one of the several themes in the multiple award-winning play, Arcadia. Yet Stoppard draws heavily on recognized theorems and concepts such as Fermat's last theorem, chaos theory and the second law of thermodynamics. Notably, Thomasina discovers a link between functional iteration and functional geometry, a revelation that was not uncovered in real life until the second half of the 20th century. Critics celebrated Arcadia's portrayal of a female mathematician in a central role, helping to address gender issues in the field. Interestingly, Lord Byron - father of esteemed mathematician Ada Lovelace - is an offstage character in the play.

Getting the Numbers Right

The Da Vinci Code sold over 80 million copies worldwide. Cryptography features heavily in the novel, and Brown explains various mathematical concepts such as Fibonacci sequences and the Golden Ratio. The Da Vinci Code has received criticism for its historical and religious inaccuracies, but how do the mathematics hold up to scrutiny? On first appearances, relatively well - yet some discrepancies appear after scratching below the surface.

Mathematics even makes an appearance in The Simpsons. With many of the shows’ writers having mathematical backgrounds, it’s no wonder that numerous mathematically themed jokes, subplots and main storylines have made an appearance!

Clearly, there is an important distinction to be made between the ways in which mathematics is represented in popular culture and how mathematicians themselves are portrayed. While many academics are willing to accept mathematical inaccuracies in films, TV, books and plays, depictions of practitioners as eccentric and socially awkward could damage the subject's appeal among young people.

Despite these concerns, the success of sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory appears to show public appetite for traditionally niche topics like science and mathematics is high. Many educators in the fields of pure and applied mathematics will no doubt hope this mainstream acceptance continues to grow.

Mathematics has experienced a pop culture resurgence over the last two decades, with writers increasingly utilizing mathematical concepts to drive plots, create intriguing characters and hook audiences across multiple genres.

The accuracy of these depictions can vary, with negative stereotypes of practitioners a common occurrence and incorrect or "bogus" mathematics occasionally offsetting the positive aspects of the discipline's widening appeal.

Nevertheless, many academics agree that thrusting mathematics more firmly into the spotlight could encourage a greater number of people, both young and old, to embrace a subject that is often seen as difficult and inaccessible.

This extract has been taken from ‘Mathematics in Popular Culture’ which can be read in full here.

Image Credit: antos777/Shutterstock

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