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Pi: The World's Only Mathematical Thriller

Posted on 13/2/14 by Pete

Happy birthday, Euclid!

It's been just over a decade and a half since Darren Aronofsky broke revolutionary ground for us with his indy cult classic Pi, and the rest of the world still hasn't followed suit. We haven't had a crypto-thriller revolving around cracking Fermat's Last Theorem, Terry Gilliam hasn't directed a biography of Paul Erdos the vagabond mathematician, and we still await a psychological horror story based on what it is in set theory that drove Kurt Godel to such madness from merely contemplating it.

You want psychedelic, hip-hop thrillers about math? You have Pi - shut up and be happy you have one slice!

One can't explore the question of "Why do smart people end up crazy?" for very long without running into Clifford Pickover's book Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives Of Eccentric Scientists And Madmen. Pickover, a famous mathematician, could almost be an example himself - along with important research into fractals, number theory, and visualization, he's also been all but the Timothy Leary of DMT and runs a site and Twitter that is nothing less than psychedelic. So he can walk the walk and talk the talk, OK?

What does drive such sophisticated minds to be so broken? Dive into any tale of a genius, and the inevitable tales of eccentricity begin to show up. Is the world such a broken, savage place that the mere possession of a high IQ is enough to drive you crazy from the stress of dealing with the rest of us dumb apes?

Anyway, Pi is the story of mathematician protagonist Max's voyage to the brink of madness in quest of an elusive theoretical number that will predict every natural pattern from the migration patterns of caribou to the fluctuations of the stock market. He has a posse of antagonists throughout his adventure, especially Wall Street mobsters who want to extract that "stock market" formula from his brain and use it for themselves, and a cult of Kabbalah mystics who want to use the number to talk to God. But his worst enemy is in his own head; he's plagued by crippling migraines that make him hallucinate and require him to be stoned out of his gourd on pain meds just to function. The migraines turn out to be caused by a specific brain defect which looks like it might be a tumor or aneurysm, making a visible scar on the surface. But can he overcome the defects of his mental handicap without jeopardizing his brilliance?

All of this is served up with some of the best psychedelic trappings of any genre. Grainy, high-contrast black and white, innovative photography, and a panoply of computer-generated images of data and graphs whizzing by. And don't forget Clint Mansell's soundtrack, a pumping techno beast of a cyberpunk soundtrack that makes great background to Max living inside his apartment-sized computer stalking mathematical secrets like Buffy hunting vampires.

Thematically, the film stands on the most solid legs. Lands sakes, did Aranofsky ever do his homework! The links between maths, philosophy, and religion hearken back to ancient Greece (echoed by his mentor's parables of Archimedes and Icarus), while Max, the stereotypical mad scientist, has roots going at least back to Frankenstein. The story is cyberpunk; the visuals border on steampunk, and how the story is told almost makes it Gothic.

Which is not to say that the film itself doesn't contain mathematical errors. There's one notable one where Max makes an assumption that's actually eons off the scale. But hey, it doesn't take away from the scene or the story, and to his defense, Max was under a lot of stress and obviously not thinking clearly at that point, or maybe trying to bluff his way out of being kidnapped.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A man is a God in ruins," and no one is more painfully aware of this fact than the genius, desperately trying to push humanity back up the steps to enlightenment. Pi captures this pain, in Max's face, carved into a whithering death glare he shoots a Wall Street representative right before barking that he's on a quest to understand our world and doesn't care beans for petty materialist concerns.

After this, in the category of "math thrillers," you have 2001's A Beautiful Mind and that's about it; and even John Nash's biography focuses more on his schizophrenia than his work. Where are the rest of the psychedelic math thrillers?

Bonus Buck: See the article about Hard 'n' Phirm's song (and hilarious video) Pi over at our sister site, Lyric Interpretations.


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