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A documentary and a Bollywood film highlight two disparate paths in mathematics


There is no way to be a mathematical genius.

Shakuntala Devi had little formal education. Maryam Mirzakhani graduated from Harvard University. Two films narrate how each woman became famous for her own variety of math skills.

The two women’s skills took very different forms: Devi was known for her incredibly fast mental arithmetic, while Mirzakhani advanced in surface mathematics, becoming the first woman to win one of the highest distinctions awarded to mathematicians, the Fields Medal.

The contrast between the two women is echoed in the divergent styles of the two films: one is a Bollywood biographical film heavy on emotional drama and the other is a documentary full of mathematical lingo.

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Born in India in 1929, Devi grew up in an impoverished family. As told in the Hindi-language film Shakuntala Devi, available with subtitles on Amazon Prime, she could do complex mental calculations at a fast pace, even when she was a child. Devi became a performer, touring internationally and surprising observers with her feats, which surpassed computers in the 70s and 80s.

Although funny, the film features episodes of cheesy dialogue that can be unpleasant for some viewers. But others will enjoy scenes that recreate some of Devi’s most famous accomplishments, such as taking root number 23 from a 201-digit number in less than a minute and multiplying two 13-digit numbers in less than 30 seconds. Attentive viewers may be able to gather some data from the film, but the film focuses on Devi’s strained relationships, particularly with her daughter, rather than the details of mental math algorithms.

Watch the trailer for Shakuntala Devi.

The Secrets of the Surface, available on the online video platform Vimeo, recounts Mirzakhani’s life through interviews with her friends, teachers and colleagues. Although Mirzakhani preferred to read rather than mathematics, his mathematical talent soon became apparent. As a high school student in Iran in the 1990s, he twice won gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad. But aside from the youthful mathematical interests shared by Devi and Mirzakhani, the backgrounds of the two women could not be more different. Mirzakhani attended an institute for gifted girls and studied mathematics at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran before heading to Harvard and eventually became a professor at Stanford University.

Mirzakhani's work focused on the geometry of surfaces, such as donuts with multiple holes. His work has connections to other fields such as string theory, the branch of mathematics-intensive physics that attempts to describe the universe as composed of small vibrating strings.

The film includes very clear descriptions and visualizations; for example, the lines surrounding a thread shape illustrate Mirzakhani’s study of the number of closed loops that can form on various curved surfaces. These visual aids elucidate the complicated mathematical concepts underlying Mirzakhani’s work, so he won the Fields Medal in 2014. Three years after receiving that honor, Mirzakhani died of cancer at just 40 years old. In the film, interviews with students from his former high school reveal what an inspiring figure he still is. “I think it has raised the bar for girls, but on top of that, it has opened a new path,” says student Dorsa Majdi.

Watch the Surface Secrets trailer.

Devi also inspired schoolchildren, promoting math as fun and daunting and writing books on numbers. Watching the two films, I couldn’t help but wonder how Devi’s life might have been different if she had been privileged with the kind of schooling Mirzakhani received. In the depiction of the biopic, Devi seems to crave that opportunity. She is portrayed looking nostalgically at children attending a school where she is paid to perform, but which she cannot afford to attend.



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