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I am looking for mathematical documentaries, both technical and non-technical. They should be "interesting" in that they present either actual mathematics, mathematicians or history of mathematics. I am in charge of nourishing our departmental math library (PUCV) and I would like to add this kind of material in order to attract undergraduates toward mathematics. For this reason, I am not looking for videos of conferences or seminar talks, but rather for introductory or "wide public" material.

Here are some good examples.

Are there more examples? Thanks, Ricardo.

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Not exactly a documentary, but appropriate for an undergrad math library: – Aaron Hoffman Jun 19 '12 at 18:57
Consult this other question ... answers include documentaries, perhaps. – Gerald Edgar Jun 19 '12 at 19:10
This question should surely be community wiki. – HJRW Jun 19 '12 at 19:41
Yes, Ricardo: please edit your question and click on the option "communiy wiki" (see the FAQ for more information on what that is). – André Henriques Jun 19 '12 at 19:55
@André Henriques and @HW: thanks, it's done. – Ricardo Menares Jun 19 '12 at 21:38

54 Answers 54

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Leys, Ghys & Alvarez have also made a video series in a similar style about dynamical systems called "Chaos". The nine chapters are all available under a Creative Commons license.

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$N$ Is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős. (Official site; Wikipedia link)

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Very Interesting and i finally learned the correct pronounciation of Erdos through this documentary, thanks! – Michael Kissner Jun 20 '12 at 17:57

I really like this short documentary on Fermats Last Theorem and Andrew Wiles struggle and setbacks proving it.

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That's the BBC documentary I mentioned in the question. I would like to know how to purchase it, do you have any information about this? Been able to watch it on youtube is of course fine, but the idea is to have it displayed in the library in order to attract potential viewers who wouldn't look for this kind of material on their own initiative. – Ricardo Menares Jun 19 '12 at 21:37
Ahh sorry, missed that part. But, here's a link to a website where you can purchase it for use in classes i believe: – Michael Kissner Jun 20 '12 at 7:01
I believe that is the same as the documentary aired on PBS in the US as a Nova episode called "The Proof". It doesnt seem to be available on DVD from PBS, but Amazon has it on VHS as do several other online retailers. – user4535 Jun 21 '12 at 14:14
Programs are often produced jointly for showing on Horizon on BBC and Nova on PBS. – Gerald Edgar Feb 15 '13 at 19:25
Link is now dead. Here is an updated link:… – Al Jebr Dec 19 '14 at 5:28

"The Color of Math" is a rather poetic documentary by Katia Eremenko that will have its premiere at the Moscow Film Festival this upcoming Saturday, June 23, 2012. It features Cedric Villani, Anatoly Fomenko, Maxim Kontsevic, Jean-Michel Bismut, Aaditya V. Rangan (and myself).

alt text

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Awesome! Will it be released internationally? – David Roberts Jun 21 '12 at 2:22
Press conference on the film: (in Russian) – David Roberts Jul 11 '12 at 7:23
Any relation between Katia Eremenko and MathOverflow user Alexandre Eremenko? – Todd Trimble Dec 16 '12 at 16:28

The soundtrack is still in progress, so it's not yet fully available but Ester Dalvit made a very interesting movie about braids and knots. At the end it will be distributed under a Creative commons license.

A trailer and parts of the movie are available here. Up to now three (old versions of) chapters are available, explaining respectively through computer generated animations:

  • the group structure of the braid group
  • "combing" of braids and handle reduction (i.e. solutions to the world problem)
  • Alexander and Markov theorems (i.e. the relation with knots).
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La lettre scellée du soldat Doblin about Wolfgang Döblin / Vincent Doblin.

Here the synopsis from IMDB: "When France surrendered in 1940 and German soldiers showed up in the Vosgian village of Housseras, an unknown French foot soldier burned his papers and killed himself in a farmer's barn. Four years later he was identified as "soldat Doblin, Vincent". In fact, he was none other than the mathematician Wolfgang Doeblin, son of the famous German novelist Alfred Döblin ("Berlin Alexanderplatz") who was forced to flee Nazi Germany with his family in 1933. A French citizen since October 1936, Wolfgang Doeblin carried on his research into probability theory during his military service and even during the hardships of the "Phoney War" in the winter of 1939-40. In February 1940, four months before his death at the age of 25, he sent his most important manuscripts ("About the Kolmogoroff Equation") as a "sealed envelope" to the Academy of Science in Paris, where they were kept in safe custody for 60 years. Wolfgang Doeblin's short and dramatic life story, almost forgotten, was finally brought into the limelight when the "sealed envelope" was opened in May 2000. Far ahead of their time, his groundbreaking contributions to the theory of random processes place Wolfgang Doeblin among the major innovators of probability, the "mathematics of randomness". Mathematical models for evaluation of chances and risks went on to gain major importance in numerous domains of modern science, in everyday life and especially in contemporary financial mathematics."

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The German title would be: Der versiegelte Brief des Soldaten Döblin. – Jose Capco Jul 4 '14 at 8:58

Something completely different, but I'm sure a lot of people here at MO would enjoy:

Beautiful young minds British documentary about International Mathematical Olympiad 2006 with focus on the UK team.

Hard problems American documentary about the same event with focus on the US team.

Documentaries contain analysis of that year's problems (although the focus is on the competition in general, team selection and contestants - which makes it more interesting to ex-contestants than to professional mathematicians or math enthusiasts).

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Marcus du Sautoy's The Story of Maths is a total of four hours attempting to give an overview of the history of mathematics from ancient to modern time, spending 5-10 minutes each on the life and work of some of the most famous mathematicians. While one could quibble with some of the selections, the project is overall a fantastic production.

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"Taking the long view: The life of Shiing-Shen Chern"

This very nice documentary was produced recently on the occasion of the Chern Centennial Conference.

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Alan Turing: Codebreaker and AI Pioneer (available here).

The code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, which helped save Britain from Nazi Germany, qualifies as one of the greatest stories of World War II, and the misunderstood genius, Alan Turing, stands at the center of this tale. Perhaps no one understands Turing's role during this period -- and his larger impact on mathematics and computing -- like B. Jack Copeland. In this lecture, Copeland contends that Turing should be celebrated as the father of artificial intelligence.

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Dangerous Knowledge:

Though this one is more about mathematicians, than mathematics.

In this one-off documentary, David Malone looks at four brilliant mathematicians – Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing – whose genius has profoundly affected us, but which tragically drove them insane and eventually led to them all committing suicide.

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Do we really want to encourage the view that mathematics is done by insane geniuses? – Steven Gubkin Jun 20 '12 at 1:19
Except for Gödel, it is grossly inaccurate to say that they became insane, even because of their genius. For Cantor and Boltzmann, this was because of the bad acception of their works, and for Turing, because of terribly stupid law. – BS. Jun 20 '12 at 9:17
It seems very likely that Boltzmann suffered from bipolar disorder. However, I agree with Steven that this Romantic trope of the "thin line between madness and genius" can be very tiresome indeed. – Todd Trimble Dec 16 '12 at 16:27

Science Lives, made by the Simons Foundation, has nine very long interviews that essentially amount to miniature documentaries about the lives of a number of 20th/21st century mathematicians and physicists.

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PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness that looks at the life of Nobel-prize winning mathematician, John Nash

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"The Proof", from NOVA, presents Andrew Wiles and the story of Fermat's Last Theorem.

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This is an excellent film. I think it may be the film Ricardo refers to as "BBC documentary on Fermat's last theorem", under a different name. – Nik Weaver Jun 1 at 1:14

"Achever l'inachevable" or "Achieving the Unachievable" features many mathematicians discussing M.C. Escher's Print Gallery, most of the material coming from the Notices article here.

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A short recent documentary on the life and mathematics of Évariste Galois, produced by the CNRS :

This documentary can be viewed online here :

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Does it manage to avoid 'Men of Mathematics'-style hype? – David Roberts Jun 21 '12 at 2:22
@David : yes, the documentary is accurate and there are interviews of historians of mathematics (Caroline Ehrhardt, Jeremy Gray). – François Brunault Jun 21 '12 at 7:51

The secret life of chaos. A BBC documentary.

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I vote for 100年の難問はなぜ解けたのか ~天才数学者 失踪の謎 ("Why the difficult 100-year-old conjecture was proven- The mysterious disappearance of the genius mathematician"), about Grigory Perelman, Geometrization, and the proof of the Poincaré Conjecture, as the best mathematical documentary ever. It's non-technical, but it's really very well-made, and gives a good sense of what research mathematics is like, and why some people spend their lives searching for proofs of mathematical conjectures. The mathematics in it is mostly fairly solid. It inspired fashion design house Issey Miyake to design a fashion collection with Bill Thurston inspired by geometrization.

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translate by google: Что такое Hatewa Вселенной? Почему на земле, что Вселенная форме? Совет ткацкий станок большой тайной для многих лет человечество было спрашивал был найден в прошлом году. :):):) – Alexander Chervov Jul 11 '12 at 18:00
Google translate is horrible at translating from Japanese... – Daniel Moskovich Jul 11 '12 at 22:11

There is a new movie that just came out called Comment j'ai détesté les Maths (How I hated math). Cédric Villani, Jim Simons, and others are featured in the film.

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That link does not go to the movie. – Byron Schmuland Aug 19 '15 at 0:46

The man who saved Geometry is a documentary on D. Coxeter:

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The only documentary about Grigori Perelman has recently got English subtitles. (Perelman is the guy who proved the Poincare conjecture and then refused a million dollar prize.) It is for laymen, and very dramatic.

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The Geometry Center (formerly of UMN, now apparently defunct) many years ago produced "Not Knot" (about hyperbolic space) and "Outside In" (about sphere eversion). There is apparently a more recent third one "The Shape of Space" I'm not familiar with. Apparently you can still order them here, although copies are now easily found on YouTube.

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Interviews and memories by leading Moscow mathematicians I.R. Shafarevich, V.I. Arnold, S.P. Novikov, B.A. Sevostyanov, A.N. Shiryaev, V.V. Golubev (major-general and dean of mexmat MSU at (1933-1935 и 1944-1952)). Some of them are quite free-spoken.


Sorry it is in Russian.

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THE THINGS YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND, 2010, Peter and Petra Lataster Mathematician Hendrik Lenstra has no car, no computer and no television. But he is the proud owner of numerous editions of Homer’s Odyssey. Directors Petra & Peter Lataster draw a portrait of Lenstra, a mathematician who thinks on the highest level. And also in daily life he is not interested in the superfluous and the fashionable.

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That's not that surprising to me. I have no car (and no driver's license) and no television either, and if MO didn't exist, I'm not sure I'd even have a computer. And I collect Dance Music CDs from the 90's as well as editions of "The girl who played with fire" (or should I say "Flickan som lekte med elden"?) in different languages :-) – Sylvain JULIEN Jan 16 '14 at 20:31
The page you linked to has an error on it and the film is not available there. – KConrad Apr 8 '15 at 15:03

A new documentary about Ramanujan just screened at the AMS meeting earlier this evening. It's called, The Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan. It was claimed that it's already up on YouTube.

EDIT: All I was able to find on the web was a very short preview.

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Marcus du Sautoy has a number of BBC math specials and short series dealing with concepts of zero, infinity, measurement. Some are done under the Horizon umbrella.

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