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Dramatic mathematics

Proof that math is still complex, but getting cooler



To the casual observer, there’s nothing dramatic, nothing particularly sexy or captivating—hell, there’s barely anything comprehendible—occurring during Adam Nyman’s graduate level abstract algebra class. For 50 minutes, the University of Montana assistant professor writes on two full walls of classroom white boards to prove a series of theorems and lemmas and who-knows-what to six attentive students, none of whom are Matt Damon, Russell Crowe or Gwyneth Paltrow. The climactic moment of the class isn’t punctuated by a student screaming “How ‘bout them apples?” or a paranoid scene involving visions of imaginary friends. Rather, Nyman hits the crescendo when he proclaims “Let’s restate the corollary I was pretty excited about last Wednesday,” and retreats back to the white board.

Despite the relatively academic brand of tension in Nyman’s abstract algebra class, Hollywood and main-stage theater have embraced the mysteries of mathematics with a bevy of recent productions. Good Will Hunting not only elevated Damon (he had the “apples” line) and Ben Affleck to Oscar glory but also managed to make solving complex equations sexy. A Beautiful Mind won Crowe an Oscar for portraying the brilliant but troubled Noble Prize-winning mathematician Jon Nash (who suffered from schizophrenia). And David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play involving the prime number theorem, Proof, was recently made into a mainstream film starring Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins—and is also being performed starting Tuesday, Oct. 25, by UM’s Department of Drama/Dance. All of this attention has placed the stereotypically antisocial math world into the glare of the entertainment spotlight, dramatizing people better known for proving the dimensions of a vector space than providing a traditional story arc.

“Does all of it make you more popular at parties? No,” says Scott Lambert, a doctoral candidate in UM’s mathematics department and one of Nyman’s students. “Everybody still makes ‘the math face’ when you tell them what you do.” Lambert then mimics “the math face” with a confused expression he says is usually preceded with a long, awkward silence.

“When they hear what you do they either think you’re brilliant, or that you’re a freak,” says Rebekah Yates, a master’s candidate in the math department. “And then, inevitably, you end up talking about their terrible high-school math teacher for the next 20 minutes. You become a math counselor.”

Some mathematicians, however, sense a turning point in Hollywood’s humanization of their profession. Bob Baker, 48, completed his master’s in mathematics at UM with a thesis on the algebra of a standard deck of playing cards. Previously, while an undergraduate at UM, he also minored in drama. And just last year, Baker, who had previously founded a local theater company, helped his alma mater celebrate Math Awareness Week with a staged reading of Proof, an event he takes pride in calling “not just a dull thing.”

“Sometimes people who know I’m a mathematician treat me with hands off, or with kids’ gloves, or as some kind of weird, special anomaly,” says Baker, who is currently working on his second master’s, this time in history. “But a lot of these shows sort of show a human side. Yes, I am locked in my brain and my brain works in a lot of ways that would frighten the hell out of a lot of people, but in spite of that we’re all human. Even if we’re brilliant, we’re capable of the greatest absurdities and stupidities on the face of the earth. I think the public likes to be reminded that those brilliant assholes really are assholes like everybody else.”

Baker was drawn to Proof not necessarily because it involved math, but because the story showed mathematicians in human situations—the story hinges on a daughter coping with the death of her brilliant father, hashing out the details of the estate with her estranged sister and falling in love with one of her father’s ex-students.

“Proof is one of those plays where, even though there isn’t a lot of heavy math in it, there are a lot of subtleties and a psychology to the characters,” says Baker. “It translates to anyone, but it’s especially meaningful to anyone who’s ever been in a math department.”

UM Drama/Dance has been working for three years to bring Proof to campus as a main-stage production, a process completely separate from Baker’s informal reading. However, following the Drama/Dance performance on Friday, Oct. 28, there will be a discussion with the director and cast that will also include representatives from the math department. Director Jillian Campana wanted to take advantage of the crossover appeal of the play, and is particularly interested in bringing out the unusual story elements that involve mathematics.

“It’s about order and chaos,” says Campana. “The perception is that math is very orderly and linear and analytical, and that theater is more chaotic and intuitive and emotional. When, the truth is that math and theater really contain both…The play shows both the analytical and emotional sides of everybody involved.”

Campana, self-described as math-phobic, wasn’t intimidated by working with the prime number theorem in the production. In fact, as she learned more about the concept and those who study it, she became more interested.

“I’m fascinated by anything that gets attention or investigated,” she says. “It’s almost sexy because it’s a new topic and it’s turned the way I’ve always thought about math on its head—prime number theory is something that involves both pattern and randomness and you can’t ever really pin it down. I mean, I find theater sexy, and anything that theater touches, including math, can be sexy.”

So math is now cool? Math is now, in fact, sexy? Are mathematicians really, all of a sudden, getting laid more of late because of productions like Proof? Professor Nyman isn’t so sure.

“I still don’t think that real math is sexy,” says Nyman. “These popular productions make math without the hard work sexy, but that’s not what it’s really like…It gives the wrong impression that these geniuses can instantly comprehend complex things like notation, and, even worse, that it’s not something that’s accessible to the average person.”

But Nyman, who plans on seeing UM’s Proof once it opens, does appreciate that, on some level, these productions take note of a field he is passionate about.

“I was lucky enough to have a college professor who was really inspirational and helped me see clearly the beauty of math,” he says. “I think there’s an elegance—I use that word a lot, elegance—to how math works, and I think when that gets conveyed, that’s what makes math so compelling.”

UM Drama/Dance’s production of Proof debuts Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 PM in the Masquer Theatre. The performance runs through Saturday, Oct. 29, and again Nov. 1 through 5. Tickets are available by calling 243-4581.

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