The Man Who Knew The Man Who Knew Infinity

Ken Ono (left) explains some mathematics to Dev Patel(right), before shooting a scene.

Ken Ono (left) explains some mathematics to Dev Patel(right), before shooting a scene. Photo courtesy of Ken Ono and Pressman Films.

It is an exciting time for people who love movies and math. The Imitation Game, a biopic about Alan Turing, comes out this November, and a Ramanujan biopic, The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the biography by Robert Kanigel, wraps filming in a couple of months. I am lucky to know the math consultant for the latter, Ken Ono, so I asked him to tell us what that experience was like.

First of all, this is a long process. Ono has been in touch with the director and writer for the film, Matt Brown, for quite a while, to perfect the script and the mathematics in it. In particular, he has worked on selecting which results of Ramanujan to present and on modifying the dialogue so it sounds more like what mathematicians in the day would have said. With respect to the math choices, Ono says “I think all experts will agree we’ve chosen well (but I cannot spill the beans)”. He did mention some of the math that will be showcased (sometimes “almost invisibly”): Ramanujan’s “celebrated evaluations of the Rogers-Ramanujan continued fraction”, Ramanujan’s formula for approximating Pi, the Hardy-Ramanujan formula for the partition function, and his work on highly composite numbers.

Ono (right) helps the Art Department get the board work right.

Ono (right) helps the Art Department get the board work right. Photo courtesy of Ken Ono and Pressman Films.

Another important job of the math consultant is to help the Art Department. Ono helped identify documents, which have been reproduced by hand, like many copies of Ramanujan’s first letter to Hardy, helped with blackboard renderings, and even creating postcards with mathematical formulas in them. Math fans will be pleased to know that there will be a 1729 license plate in the film.

Ono also flew to the London studios, where filming began on August 3, to help the actors. The film will star Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as G.H. Hardy, but it boasts a great cast of supporting actors including Toby Jones and Stephen Fry. As the math consultant, Ono helped the actors rehearse lines, especially so they would “sound right”. He provided help in many scenes, he thinks 30 or 40, and answered many questions for the actors. In Ono’s own words, “The actors needed to know the meaning of many mathematical concepts before they could begin to portray characters accurately. I now understand why the top actors earn the big bucks… Their attention to detail in these issues has been mind boggling… Irons and Patel were tireless in this regard.”

Left to right: Ed Pressman (producer), Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Ken Ono, Matt Brown (director) and Sorel Carradine.

Left to right: Ed Pressman (producer), Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel, Ken Ono, Matt Brown (director) and Sorel Carradine. Photo courtesy of Ken Ono and Pressman Films.

He will continue to be a part of the process in post-production, participating in early screenings and possible attending film festivals and premieres later on. “It has been the opportunity of a lifetime”, he says. It certainly seems like a unique experience for any mathematician. More excitingly, Ono now joins that elite group of people with both an Erdos and a Bacon number (which by his account is now 4).

As a math instructor and as someone who cares about the public awareness of mathematics, I am very excited that these movies are getting made. But it is truly exciting to see that so much care is being given to the mathematics, too, and it is heartening to see people like Ken Ono help make this an accurate and faithful portrayal of one of the greatest mathematical minds of the last century. I was very happy to get this “inside look” into the movie-making process, and hope you, dear readers, are too.

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