Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Brilliant Young Mind: The IMO goes to the movies

Jo Yang as Zhang Mei and Asa Butterfield as Nathan Ellis in A Brilliant Young Mind. Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Mainstream movies about mathematicians used to be a rarity, but are now fairly common. Good Will Hunting, Proof, A Beautiful Mind, Pi, Cube, The Bank, Travelling Salesman, The Imitation Game come immediately to mind. So too does Stand and Deliver if you include mathematics teaching.

The titles I just listed are such good movies, there is now a high bar to success in this growing genre. In particular, the movie has to have a good story, a strong cast, and it needs to get the math right – and moreover do so in a way that intrigues the audience but does not detract from the pace of the story. The new movie A Brilliant Young Mind, by British director Morgan Matthews, meets that standard.

Due to be released in the US on September 11, A Brilliant Young Mind, starring the hugely talented young British Actor Asa Butterfield (who starred as Ender in Ender’s Game, opposite Harrison Ford) was first screened in the UK last year, originally under the title “X + Y”, on which more later.

The film focuses on the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), the competition held annually around the world, where national teams of six pre-collegiate students compete for individual and team medals. The movie follows one particular British student as he goes through the grueling process of preparing for and taking the test to qualify for team pre-selection in the British National Mathematical Competition, going off to a training camp in Taiwan, where the final team of six is selected in a mock IMO competition, and then heading to Cambridge, England, for the international competition itself.

Both the mathematics and the mathematics competitions are handled well. (More later.) Mathematicians will not be disappointed on that score.

I have to admit that, on first viewing, I felt that the romantic thread between the Asa Butterfield character (Nathan Ellis) and the young female Chinese math whiz he meets at the training camp, played by Jo Yang, was a crude injection to create a movie with mainstream audience appeal. In particular, I thought the dramatic ending (you’ll have to watch the movie to find out if it is a happy or sad ending) was way over the top.

But then I watched the original BBC documentary that A Brilliant Young Mind director Matthews made back in 2006, on which he based the movie, and guess what? The story in A Brilliant Young Mind stays pretty close to real life! Right down to what at first viewing of the movie I thought were syrupy shots included purely for cinematic romantic effect. (Cue the rainbow in the background as the British and Chinese math whizzes travel by train through the British countryside. Taken right out of real life!)

So if my jaded-by-Hollywood mathematical colleagues find themselves, like me, lamenting to themselves, “Why do movie makers spoil the real story with all that romantic mush?” you should suppress that reaction at once. What the movie gives you is a dramatic (and dramatized) recreation of real life.

That, by the way, is why I like the movie’s original title in the UK: “X + Y”, a nicely succinct way to link the mathematics problem solving and the romantic engagement. Still the title A Brilliant Young Mind does convey the idea of a young version of the brilliant (but, like Butterworth’s Nathan Ellis, mentally troubled) John Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind, and Matthews himself pulled on the same association with the title of his earlier documentary.

Despite taking his basic storyline straight out of real life, Matthews does (of course) take plenty of dramatic license in order to give us a watchable movie. He is, after all, telling a fictional story, albeit one based (unusually closely) on real life. Few in the audience will have much interest in the mathematics, or even math competitions (besides, perhaps, being surprised that such things exist), but everyone likes a good story about people. And that is what A Brilliant Young Mind delivers.

In particular, I suspect many of my fellow mathematicians will also balk at the portrayal of several of the British IMO team selectees as exhibiting various forms of autism. (In real life, good mathematicians of all ages run the full spectrum of human characteristics, with the vast majority of math whizzes being just like everyone else.) But that aspect too is what you will find in the documentary. (But see my postscript comments at the end.)

The IMO team members who the Butterfield character interacts with in the movie are also clearly based on real-life counterparts in the documentary. In particular, the student who has made his way onto the team by learning a lot of mathematical facts and procedures that he can regurgitate and apply at speed, but falters when it comes to having to apply original thinking. (Both the US and the UK math education systems encourage and reward that approach, which is why they do so poorly in the international PISA tests, which look for original thought. My Stanford colleague Jo Boaler has a new book on that misguided, and sad, state of affairs, Mathematical Mindsets, coming out in the Fall.)

The only complaint you could make about Matthews is the choices he made in selecting the footage he shot for the original documentary. But that is true for any documentary film. Matthews followed the UK 2006 IMO team through the entire competition process, and then told a story based on what he had captured.

Interestingly enough, another documentary film maker, George Csicery, followed the US IMO team at the same time. You can compare the two documentaries. Matthews’ BBC documentary is available online for free streaming. Csicery’s film Hard Problems, is available for purchase from the MAA ($19.95 to members).

Enough of all these words. We’re talking about a movie, after all. Time to watch some movie clips.

You can watch the official trailer for A Brilliant Young Mind here.

Mathematicians will particularly like the one short sequence where the movie shows a brilliant mathematical mind in action, solving a problem, which you can see in isolation in this officially sanctioned YouTube video. It is a superbly chosen (and acted) example. No fake numerical mumbo jumbo here. Genuine mathematical thinking in action. And good mathematical thinking to boot. Any math instructor would surely love to have a student produce such a solution for the class.

During the year the two documentaries were made, the IMO was held in Ljubljana, Slovenia (not Cambridge, England, as in the movie). You can see the actual problems the competitors faced here. (With sample solutions.)

Finally, for long lists of scenes in movies that feature a mathematician or a math problem, see here and here.

Enjoy the film!


Both the movie and the BBC documentary raise some issues that concern me as a mathematician. The main danger of any documentary or movie is if viewers (and for a film like A Brilliant Young Mind, the audience may well include young kids showing an early interest in mathematics) get the impression that what they see is representative of the field. This of course, is true for pretty well any movie, be the topic crime detection, politics, business, law, the military, sports, or whatever. I think it is particularly worrying in mathematics, because most people have a very impoverished, and often completely erroneous perception of mathematics. Both of Matthews’ films trouble me on that count.

These thoughts are in no way a criticism of the movie I am reviewing. It is what it is. I think it is a good movie and I like it. (Though as I noted, in my case much of my positive evaluation comes from knowing that the things in the movie that initially turned me off as being unrealistic and contrived turned out to be true!) Rather, the issues I raise are general ones about the public perception of mathematics. In making both his documentary and the movie, Morgan Matthews set out to make good films. His goal was not to improve the public understanding of mathematics. That, on the other hand, is something I have spent a great deal of my career focusing on. Hence this postscript, separate from my review.

First, it has to be said that competition mathematics is in many respects a very different activity than the professional mathematics that most of us in the business pursue. For one thing, competition math requires speed, whereas many good mathematicians are slow thinkers. (I certainly am.)

There is also something very unusual about the kinds of problems that the IMO presents. Of necessity, they have to be solvable in at most an hour, and in many cases, the way to go about solving them is to be very conscious of that time limitation. They have to depend on seeing a particular insight or trick. Some people are naturally good at that kind of problem solving, but it can also be to some extent taught – which is what goes on at those IMO training camps. On the other hand, most mathematics problems that the pros grapple with are very different. In many cases, no one has any idea if there is a solution at all, or how long it may be.

Moreover, the connection between being good at competition math and having the aptitude to succeed in professional mathematics is not at all clear-cut. Certainly, some IMO medal winners have gone on to pursue mathematics at university level, but not all of them have gone on to lead a successful career in mathematics. (Some have.) And many of the best mathematicians in the world have never in their lives had any interest in competition math. Though the two domains do have abstract mathematics in common, they are in many ways very different activities.

So to a child or the parent of a child who shows aptitude toward mathematics, I would say this. If you fancy the idea of competition math, give it a try. If you do well, enjoy the experience. It will certainly show that you have some abilities that could help you succeed in a mathematical career. But if you find you do not enjoy it, or if you like it but do not do well, that in no way means you could not grow up to be a top rank mathematician.

Another unintended message that math competitions tend to convey is that you have to have a special talent for mathematics (a “math gene” if you like). This notion that mathematics is something for the “gifted and talented” is pervasive in many cultures, and it is total BS. The two most important factors in achieving success in mathematics are wanting to do math and growing up in a supportive, educationally rich, sociocultural environment. Not only is the world of mathematics replete with examples of world class mathematicians who will tell you flat out how many hours of effort it took them to get to that point, and how others helped them on their way, there is also a growing body of evidence from nueroscience studies to support the hypothesis that mathematics, like pretty well any other human endeavor, is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration.

Society would do well to banish that term “gifted and talented” once and for all, and replace it with something more accurate. “Motivated and bloody hard working” is my nomination. (Individual mileages do, of course, vary.)

My final editorial remark is something I touched upon in my review. The movie, focuses on a small group of mathematics students, and one of them in particular, who exhibit various forms and degrees of autism. True, the same was true of the young students in the director’s earlier documentary, but that clearly reflects the particular perceptual lens the director brought to the project. That lens is made dramatically clear by the opening scenes in the documentary where we meet one of the competitors, Jos. Matthews set out to portray IMO participants as being unusual and different. And he found some.

Cleary, getting to represent their country in an international competition in of itself makes them different. But presenting them as intrinsically different is a definite editorial decision.

Contrast Matthews’ documentary with Csicery’s. In the latter, focusing on the US team at the same IMO, the director sets out to convey the very ordinariness of the participants, highlighting not what is different about them (they love math being the main thing) but how much they are just like any other kids of that age.

Csicery, as many readers of this column will know, makes documentary films about mathematicians and mathematics as a profession, and he makes them primarily for the mathematics and mathematics education professions. So he strives to inform an audience who are interested in mathematics. This, of course, is very different from Matthews, who sets out to make movies that intrigue viewers who do not necessarily have any interest in the topic, whatever it is. Csicery succeeds with his audience by being as accurate and representative as he can, while also managing to tell a story. Matthews has to tell a good human interest story that hangs on some strong characters, with everything else revealed during the film. They are doing different things.

I found Matthews’ documentary fascinating and highly engaging, and I’m really glad it inspired him to turn it into a movie. You should watch both.

But if what you want is to get a good overall sense of the world of competitive math, you should watch Csicery’s documentary. The two documentaries provide very different perceptions of the same IMO competition.