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Posts Tagged ‘Documentaries’

John von Neumann made so many fundamental contributions that Paul Halmos remarked that it was almost like von Neumann maintained a list of various subjects that he wanted to touch and develop and he systematically kept ticking items off. This sounds to be remarkably true if one just has a glance at the dizzyingly long “known for” column below his photograph on his wikipedia entry.

John von Neumann with one of his computers.

John von Neumann with one of his computers.

Since Neumann died (young) in 1957, rather unfortunately, there aren’t very many audio/video recordings of his (if I am correct just one 2 minute video recording exists in the public domain so far).

I recently came across a fantastic film on him that I would very highly recommend. Although it is old and the audio quality is not the best, it is certainly worth spending an hour on. The fact that this film features Eugene Wigner, Stanislaw UlamOskar Morgenstern, Paul Halmos (whose little presentation I really enjoyed), Herman Goldstein, Hans Bethe and Edward Teller (who I heard for the first time, spoke quite interestingly) alone makes it worthwhile.

Update: The following youtube links have been removed for breach of copyright. The producer of the film David Hoffman, tells us that the movie should be available as a DVD for purchase soon. Please check the comments to this post for more information.

Part 1

Find Part 2 here.

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I have never done anything useful. No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or for ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil. And outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. The case for my life then, or for anyone else who has been a mathematician in the same sense that I have been one is this: That I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more, and that these somethings have a value that differ in degree only and not in kind from that of the creations of the great mathematicians or any of the other artists, great or small who’ve left some kind of memorial behind them. 

I still say to myself when I am depressed and and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people “Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.” — G. H. Hardy (A Mathematician’s Apology)

Yesterday I  discovered an old (1987) British documentary on Srinivasa Ramanujan, which was pretty recently uploaded. I was not surprised to see that the video was made available by Christopher J. Sykes, who has been uploading older documentaries (including those by himself) on youtube (For example – The delightful “Richard Feynman and the Quest for Tannu Tuva” was uploaded by him as well. I blogged about it a couple of years ago!). Thanks Chris for these gems!

Since the documentary is pretty old, it is a little slow. But if you have one hour to spare, you should watch it! It features his (now late) widow, a quite young Béla Bollobás and the late Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. The video is embedded below – in case of any issues also find it linked here.

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[Ramanujan: Letters from an Indian Clerk]

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I could have written something on Ramanujan, but decided against it. Instead, I’d close this post with an excerpt from a wonderful essay by Freeman Dyson on Ramanujan published in Ramanujan: Essays and Surveys by Berndt and Rankin

Ramanujan: Essays and Surveys (click on image to view on Amazon)

A Walk Through Ramanujan’s Garden — F. J. Dyson

[…] The inequalities (8), (9) and (10) were undoubtedly true, but I had no idea how to prove them in 1942. In the end I just gave up trying to prove them and published them as conjectures in our student magazine “Eureka”. Since there was half a page left over at the end of my paper, they put in a poem by my friend Alison Falconer who was also a poet and mathematician. […]

Short Vision

Thought is the only way that leads to life.

All else is hollow spheres

Reflecting back

In heavy imitation

And blurred degeneration

A senseless image of our world of thought.

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Man thinks he is the thought which gives him life.

He binds a sheaf and claims it as himself.

He is a ring through which we pass swinging ropes

Which merely move a little as he slips.

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The Ropes are Thought.

The Space is Time.

Could he but see, then he might climb.

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I am a big fan and collector of the BBC Horizon documentaries and I was pleasantly surprised to have found an old one (probably from the year Horizon started, though I think this is from 1966) that I didn’t know exist till two weeks ago. It is on the exciting discovery of the \Omega - and features Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. It, like the old Horizon documentaries is more technical but at the same time more raw and exciting. And is worth watching only for its historical significance and age if nothing else. Definitely a collector’s item!

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Strangeness Minus Three (BBC Horizon, 1964/6)

Total Runtime: 41:20

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part3]

[Alternative Link]

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N is a Number : A Portrait of Paul Erdős is one of the most delightful, endearing and probably one of the best documentaries I have seen on an individual. I have always regarded Paul  Erdős as one of my personal heroes and hence It seems weird that I had not seen this rather old documentary earlier. Especially given it’s extremely high quality, appeal and not to mention the character it is based on.  However, it is never late to discover something so good.

There is an extremely good wikipedia entry on Paul Erdős. However I would still write a few words on him before linking to the videos.

A Mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.

— An extremely famous quote attributed to Alfréd Rényi. It was originally intended for Hungarian mathematicians and the mathematical-circles culture that flourished there giving the world so many mathematical giants.

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Erdős was an extremely prolific and famously eccentric mathematician, producing more papers and collaborating with more people than anybody in history. His eccentricity made him an extremely lovable character, and he made a fair share in contributing to human comedy.

He had no home and no full time job, he traveled around the world for half a century. Surviving on living with collaborators, fees from lectures and other appearances. His dis-interest in anything carnal or materialistic was almost Zen like I would dare say. Just having two pairs of half empty suitcases as his only belongings as he moved along from one location onto another.

It is often said (and quite correctly) that if you finish all bees in the world, the world would not survive for long. We could use that as an allegory for the sciences /mathematics as well. Erdős was essentially a bee. Brilliant in many areas of mathematics, he traveled from place to place using one idea from one area into another, cross-pollinating them, generating interest with his lovable anecdotes and enriching Mathematics as a consequence. A welcome departure from the so called purists.

His mathematical output was so prolific that a tribute is the famous Erdős number that gives the collaborative distance of a mathematician with him. The reason for such astounding output was not just his love for only mathematics but a brilliant memory. Colleagues have remarked that he could remember problems discussed years ago and exactly what the details that were talked about. If a mathematical problem was left half way, he could still remember where was the point they stopped, even if revisited after years. Not just that, he had this knack of knowing the mind of other mathematicians in where their interests lay. So he knew who would like to work on what kind of problems.

Though Mathematics was his only love, his knowledge was extremely wide and he could talk with most people about most things they might be interested in. Almost educated in the classical European style, with interests spreading across other basic sciences, politics, history. literature etc.

His work was not rich just in quantity. He displayed an extremely good taste in choosing and posing problems. The solutions to some of which have resulted in entirely new areas of Mathematics. Paul Erdős had been a towering figure even while he was alive, but as more time passes by, he only grows taller.

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N is a Number : A Portrait of Paul Erdős – Videos

Total Runtime : 57 Minutes

[View Here]

– Based on the book “The man who only loves numbers” by Paul Hoffman.

– Made by George Paul Csicsery 1993

– Narrated by James Locker

– Music by Mark Adler (I have to mention the music as I thought it was pretty beautiful, especially towards the end)

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Hat Tip : To Dr Vitorino Ramos’ ever thoughtful blog

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