Mathematicians in weird places

Yesterday, Kiran Kedlaya was competing on Jeopardy!. I, along with many of my friends, was very (and maybe unreasonably) excited about this. There is something really exciting, always, about seeing someone you know on TV, or on stage, or in a concert. I’m not really sure why that is. In my case, I think it’s that I know these people and admire them and I’m happy that more people will share in this admiration. But I think in this instance, I was even more excited because he’s a mathematician. We don’t get enough good publicity, and it’s great to have examples of people who are great mathematicians and are also great at something else. So this got me thinking about other situations with math people who have been in the non-math spotlight.

Kiran is no stranger to the screen, he was also featured in the 2006 documentary Wordplay, about Will Shortz and people who love crosswords. Math documentaries are the place where you would expect to see a lot of math people. But are there other documentaries featuring math people that are not math documentaries? Let us know in the comments if you know!

I was pretty excited when Art Benjamin visited the Colbert Report a few years ago. There must be other instances of mathematicians as guests on talk shows, right? I just can’t think of any more.

Erik Demaine is another example of a mathematician with a non-math talent. He has been making amazing works of art for as long as he’s been a mathematician (and sometimes uses math to make art!). Some of his pieces are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

More common are former math people who are now in the entertainment business. For example, behind the scenes of the TV show Futurama, we have Ken Keeler, who got a PhD in applied mathematics before moving on to comedy writing. Another example is Dan Snaith (aka Caribou), who is an electronic musician (and a very good one!) who got a PhD in mathematics from Imperial College in London.

Danica McKellar was a math major in college, and has written a few books about math for the general (teen) public, but I don’t know if I count her in these examples since she was an actress before doing math and is now back to being an actress. Another actress/former math major is Felicia Day, who is most famous probably for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog and the web-series The Guild.

Still, the most interesting examples are of people who make a living doing math but have also participated in a different, spotlight-worthy, activity. We welcome any stories about “mathematicians in weird places” in the comments section below. If you have a link, even better.

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7 Responses to Mathematicians in weird places

  1. Avatar Mike Breen says:

    I was sorry Kiran didn’t win his second match, but he was a great contestant! I was on Jeopardy! in 1991 (around the time television was invented) and Wheel of Fortune in 1998. Unfortunately, I was not a good spinner and in fact cut my hand on the wheel.

  2. Avatar Annette Emerson says:

    Erik Demaine, Thomas Hull, and Robert Lang — and their stunning mathematically-inspired origami creations — were featured in “Between the Folds” (, an amazing documentary on the world’s best paper-folders.

  3. Avatar Mason says:

    SIAM News has had a couple of articles over the years about mathematicians who have done other things (like write novels). I think there were only one or two articles, one of which might have been about poetry books published by Phil Holmes.

    Many of us have consulted for movies or tv shows (e.g. , very prominently, Gary Lorden in Numb3rs). I created a fake unified field theory for the blackboard scene in Meet Dave. More interestingly [for me, anyway!], a non-mathematical book I published [about pranks at Caltech] has inspired a movie currently going through the very slow process from idea to reality: Legends of Caltech Facebook page.

  4. Avatar Prasad says:

    Mahan Mitra, a mathematician who is also a monk.! (

  5. Avatar Edward Dunne says:

    Byron Walden, a mathematician at Santa Clara University, was also in the movie Wordplay, demonstrating both his fine acting skills and his abilities as a creator of devilishly clever crossword puzzles.

  6. Avatar Charles says:

    Magic the gathering was created by a mathematician. The RPG game that became an international craze with national competition.

  7. Avatar Jerry Grossman says:

    Don’t forget Herman Cain, former presidential candidate — he has a bachelor’s degree in math and a masters in computer science if I am not mistaken.

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