Doing math with movie stars

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Sept. 28, 2014

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Kevin McNally, left, is portraying British mathematician Major McMahon. "McNally played Mr. Gibbs in 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and he would do this pirate fist bump," Emory mathematcian Ken Ono says. "I'm not sure what it means."

Emory mathematician Ken Ono did not plan for his career to veer into the movie business. Unexpected paths can open, however, when your work involves unraveling the trail of mysteries left by Srinivasa Ramanujan. The Indian math genius had little formal education, but filled notebook after notebook with fantastic formulas that he said were visions from a Hindu goddess.

While British colonialism was still at its height, English mathematician G.H. Hardy helped Ramanujan become a scholar at Cambridge University, where he bedazzled and baffled professors. Ramanujan died in 1920 at the age of 32, leaving behind many extraordinary contributions to math, along with big questions about the proofs underlying his work.

Ono is among those who’ve cracked some of these questions: Most notably, the realization in 2011 that partition numbers are fractals, an insight that opened a theoretical window onto “seeing” their infinitely repeating superstructure. Ono’s team also devised the first finite formula for calculating the partitions of any number.

In July, Ono received a request from film director Matt Brown in London to chat over Skype about a biopic he was working on. “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” produced by Stillwater Pictures, will feature Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as Hardy.

Ono happily agreed to the Skype session. The next thing he knew, he was flying to London to serve as an on-the-scene consultant during filming at Pinewood Studios.

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