Mathematical Sciences Research Institute

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Documentaries and Special Event Recordings

This page contains information about both films produced for public broadcast as well as recordings of special events and lectures that are not part of MSRI's research programs or workshops. (For streaming videos from mathematical lectures at MSRI, please visit our main video page.)  
People who do and use mathematics often have fascinating stories and adventures to tell related to their work; and partly because their work itself is often hard for non-mathematicians to comprehend, these stories can have a special interest.  Sometimes mathematicians' experiences are as unusual as those of the homeless but much-loved and celebrated Paul Erdős; sometimes their adventures are as unusual as astronaut Michael Foale's rescuing of the Mir space station. 

As part of MSRI's commitment to telling the story of mathematics, we have produced a number of films about mathematicians; many have been directed by George Csicsery of Zala Films, whose first film about a mathematician, N is a Number, has become a classic. Please see the list of films below that are for sale through Zala Films or viewable on our web site. We think that each has something interesting for mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike!

Math Documentaries by Zala Films

If you have questions regarding DVD purchases from Zala Films, you can email us for assistance.

Hundreds of Navajo children in recent years have found themselves at the center of a lively collaboration with mathematicians from around the world. The children stay late after school and assemble over the summer to study mathematics, using a model called math circles, which originated in Eastern Europe and has proliferated across the United States. This notion of student-centered learning puts children in charge of exploring mathematics to their own joy and satisfaction, with potentially long-lasting results. Navajo Math Circles, a one-hour film, documents this process over a two year period.

Counting from Infinity: Yitang Zhang and the Twin Prime Conjecture (2015): Order Form at Zala Films

In April 2013, a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire submitted a paper to the Annals of Mathematics. Within weeks word spread—a little-known mathematician, with no permanent job, working in complete isolation had made an important breakthrough towards solving the Twin Prime Conjecture. Yitang Zhang's techniques for bounding the gaps between primes soon led to rapid progress by the Polymath Group, and a further innovation by James Maynard. The film is a study of Zhang's rise from obscurity and a disadvantaged youth to mathematical celebrity. The story of quiet perseverance amidst adversity, and Zhang's preference for thinking and working in solitude, is interwoven with a history of the Twin Prime Conjecture as told by several mathematicians, many of whom have wrestled with this enormously challenging problem in Number Theory: Daniel Goldston, Kannan Soundararajan, Andrew Granville, Peter Sarnak, Enrico Bombieri, James Maynard, Nicholas Katz, David Eisenbud, Ken Ribet, and Terry Tao.

These recorded conversations between Yitang Zhang and David Eisenbud, Daniel Goldston and Kannan Soundararajan contain much more detail about Zhang’s life and mathematical work than the completed one-hour film. 

Taking the Long View examines the life of a remarkable mathematician whose formidable mathematical contributions were matched by an approach and vision that helped build bridges between China and the West. The biographical documentary follows Shiing-shen Chern (1911-2004) through many of the most dramatic events of the 20th century, portraying a man who dedicated his life to pure mathematics with the style of a classical Chinese sage. Chern is considered a father of modern differential geometry, and among his many accomplishments, he was a co-founder of MSRI.

In 1997, Michael Foale was the American astronaut on board the Russian space station Mir at the time of a failed docking attempt with an unmanned Progress supply ship. The supply ship collided with Mir, punching a hole in one of the modules of Mir, damaging a number of the solar panels, and inducing a tumbling motion that prevented the remaining solar panels from pointing toward the sun. The result was that the air pressure began to decline precipitously, and after a period of time all electric power was lost. By sealing off the punctured module, the crew was able to restore the required air pressure, but the tumbling motion seemed a more intractable problem. Michael Foale proposed using the thrusters on an attached Soyuz vehicle that served as an emergency evacuation “life boat” and had an independent power supply. The problem was how to use those thrusters to transform the tumbling motion into a regular spin about an axis that would keep the undamaged solar panel facing in the direction of the sun, and thus restore electricity to the station. 

In The Right Spin, Foale provides his personal account of the experience, and explains the mathematical methods involved in rescuing Mir from what would almost certainly have been its demise had they been forced to evacuate and leave it tumbling without power until it burned up re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. Production of this film was made possible with support from the Clay Mathematics Institute, MSRI, and the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics.

A portrait of two very different mathematicians, porridge pulleys and pi features Fields medalist Vaughan Jones, one of the world’s foremost knot theorists and an avid windsurfer, and Hendrik Lenstra, a number theorist with a passion for Homer and all things classical. The film poses the question: how do we get first-rate research mathematicians? Hendrik Lenstra and Vaughan Jones have had an extraordinary impact on mathematics; this charming documentary gives the viewer a taste of their personalities, mathematical and otherwise. A whirlwind tour of knots, genomics, cryptography, music, Homer, elliptic curves, art and windsurfing, the video contains sections on the history of Pi, and a surprising discovery involving a cocoa tin and an Escher print.

Short Films about MSRI

Critical Issues in Mathematics Education

This series of annual workshops at MSRI addresses key problems in math education today. They are designed to engage mathematicians, mathematics education researchers, and K-12 teachers as participants. All presentations are recorded and can be found by clicking the links for each workshop below and viewing the "Show Schedule" tab.

Finding Common Ground Math Education Forum

Leading voices in the math education profession came together in Washington, D.C. in April 2015 to discuss college and career-readiness standards and mathematics teacher preparation and licensing. The forum, co-sponsored by MSRI and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), shared best practices and next steps regarding implementation of standards across states.
Some additional film content from this event, as well as further discussion with presenters, is available via Illustrative Mathematics as part of their 2015-2016 Virtual Lecture Series, "Speaking of Mathematics Education: Productive Conversations with Families".

Act from Thought: The Case for Basic Science Research

As part of the 2015 National Math Festival in Washington, D.C., the Act from Thought gala dinner made an eloquent case for the importance of basic science research. Many governments are currently redirecting money for basic research into more applied areas. Tempting as this is, it risks losing the spectacular payoffs that basic research has provided in the past — and can provide in the future.

Not on the Test: The Pleasure and Uses of Mathematics

Each link below will take you to the event page for the individual lecture - scroll down to find the video footage below the event description. Only lectures which were recorded are listed below.

New Horizons in Undergraduate Mathematics

This series showcases great lecturers speaking on topics from current research (at time of filming) that are both important, accessible, and ready to enter the undergraduate curriculum.

Symposium on Global Warming: From Global Predictions to Local Action

MSRI Biology Colloquium

  • For a listing of all talks and their videos for our Biology Colloquium series, please see the Biology Colloquium page.

Other Special Events and Public Lectures

Committee on Academic Sponsors Day Presentations