Russian Math-Physics Film News

I’m pressed for time, heading out tomorrow for a short vacation in San Francisco, but I did want to write a little bit here before leaving. Last year around now, a theme was Hollywood blockbuster films with physics/math themes, this year there seem to be none of those, instead I’m hearing about some Russian films with such themes.

This evening here at Columbia there was a showing of Ekaterina Eremenko’s Colors of Math, an exploration of the sensual nature of mathematics, pairing research mathematicians with the five senses. Part of it is available on Youtube. Eremenko went to graduate school in mathematics in Moscow, then later on to a career in modeling and TV, and in recent years has been making films (see here). Her current project is called The Discrete Charm of Geometry, trailer is here.

Somehow I’d missed until today hearing about a truly fantastic Russian film project which has been going on for years, showing no signs yet of reaching an endpoint. The topic is the life of the great Russian theoretical physicist Lev Landau, and the London Review of Books has a column by James Meek about the film here. It seems that the director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, has been working on this for a decade, creating a huge set in Kharkov, where Landau worked during the 1930s, and doing his best to recreate the time as accurately as possible. Meek describes the shooting as follows:

For more than two years, between 2009 and 2011, hundreds of volunteers, few of them professional actors, were filmed living, sleeping, eating, gossiping, working, loving, betraying each other and being punished in character, in costume, with nothing by way of a script, on the Kharkiv set, their clothes and possessions altered, fake decade by fake decade, to represent the privileged, cloistered life of the Soviet scientific elite between 1938 and 1968.

Among those brought in to participate in all of this were well-known physicists and mathematicians Dmitry Kaledin, Nikita Nekrasov, Andrey Losev, Carlo Rovelli, David Gross, Shing-Tung Yau and Alexander Midgal.

Post-production is now going on in London, in a huge five-story building in Mayfair, financed by someone who doesn’t want to be identified. It’s unclear what will emerge from the seven hundred hours of film shot in Kharkiv, perhaps “a dozen or more movies, a TV series, and a user-directed internet narrative system.” Whatever it is, I’m very curious to see the result.

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13 Responses to Russian Math-Physics Film News

  1. SimpleBiologist says:

    Eremenko also did short films about Nash and Nirenberg for Abel price foundation.

  2. Visitor says:

    “For more than two years, hundreds of volunteers, few of them professional actors, were filmed living, sleeping, eating, gossiping, working, loving, betraying each other and being punished in character with nothing by way of a script, on the Kharkiv set…”

    Because if you put enough amateurs together, and leave them to their own devices, the results are bound to be professional. Or maybe not.

    Don’t expect too much in the way of a watchable movie.

  3. Boris says:

    I don’t think the youtube piece mentions the name of Anatoly Fomenko (starting at 5:00), you can find more of his drawings on the internet. Also, it is unfortunate that Perelman wasn’t living on that set in Kharkiv.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    I agree there may be a “watchability” problem with whatever emerges, but if you compare to last year’s example of a film portrayal by professional actors of mathematicians gathered in a research institute of the period (Bletchley Park), I’d much rather watch real mathematicians dressed up doing who-knows-what than the Hollywood completely bogus version of what supposedly happened.

  5. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: Hollywood’s interpretation of Bletchley Park, i.e. The Imitation Game: it should have been listed under comedy. It seems that having built the enormous and complex bombe – entirely without the help of any technicians, it seems – Turing still does not realise that its purpose was to search for cribs until someone says something in a pub about the possibility. So I suppose that he was building the machine for the sheer fun of it up to that point. He was apparently also a traitor.

    I really do not mind professional actors reciting technical jargon with obviously no understanding, but I do object to needless blackening of peoples’ names in the name of “drama”.

  6. Chris W. says:

    So perhaps the lesson from The Imitation Game is that no script might be better than the deliberate hash that a few professional scriptwriters could make of the actual events, especially with producers breathing down their necks. There is nothing stopping those volunteers, especially if many of them are mathematicians, from studying the original history and the personalities involved and improvising a story that bears a decent resemblance to what actually happened. A smart director who cares about the history might help a lot.

    Anyway, we’ll see. The Moscow News has this story about the making of Colors of Math. (There is an NYU connection.)

  7. Chris W. says:

    Luca, thanks for pointing to that wonderful interview. It deserves to be widely read.

  8. Chris W. says:

    PS: On that interview, see Anonyrat’s comment on the previous post, where it is more directly relevant. (Post responses there, not here.)

  9. theoreticalminimum says:

    Regarding Landau, it’s probably worth mentioning the excellent 2013 collection, by physicist Mikhail Shifman, of memoirs and reviews on the scientific activities of some the most prominent theoretical physicists belonging to the Landau School, Under the Spell of Landau: When Theoretical Physics was Shaping Destinies (World Scientific).

  10. AcademicLurker says:

    Is there a decent biography of Landau in English? I haven’t seen one.

    Feynman and Landau are widely agreed to be the 2 greats of the first post-quantum generation; the contrast between the huge amount of Feynmanalia and the relative lack of material on Landau is striking. Blame the cold war, I guess.

    I do recall how at Caltech, the bookstore had one whole shelf filled with copies of the Feynman lectures and another shelf filled with Landau and Lifshitz.

  11. Richard says:

    Is there a decent biography of Landau in English? I haven’t seen one.

    Neither have I, and I’d certainly seek out and read such.

    Much simpler than that: “Landau’s List” is a nice piece of non-apocryphal folklore, but (aside from the few top Newton, Einstein, Dirac entries) its contents seem to be relatively obscure. Any leads?

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