Love Multiplies At A Math Olympiad In 'Brilliant' A new film set at the International Mathematical Olympiad is a story of love and numbers. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Stanford University professor Keith Devlin about what the competition entails.

Love Multiplies At A Math Olympiad In 'Brilliant'

Love Multiplies At A Math Olympiad In 'Brilliant'

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A new film set at the International Mathematical Olympiad is a story of love and numbers. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Stanford University professor Keith Devlin about what the competition entails.


A new movie called "A Brilliant Young Mind" is a story of love amid numbers. The film is set around the International Mathematical Olympiad where a young British math prodigy falls for a competitor who is Chinese. WEEKEND EDITION's math guy, another brilliant young mind, Keith Devlin, has reviewed the movie for The Huffington Post. You can read it there, but we want to delve more into this whole idea of competitive math. Keith joins us from member station KRCB in Sonoma County, Calif. Keith, thanks so much for being back with us.

KEITH DEVLIN: Glad to be with you again, Scott.

SIMON: There is an International Mathematical Olympiad, right?

DEVLIN: There is indeed. It happens every year.

SIMON: And what happens there?

DEVLIN: There's a lot of festivities. There's a starting ceremony and a closing ceremony, but the heart of the thing is that on two successive days, the competitors take an exam - one on each day - and each exam has three questions in it. So the idea is the competitors answer three questions, which are about one-and-a-half hours each. They do it on one day then they go back to their hotels, they rest, I'm sure, and sleep heavily and then they come back the next day and do the same thing again. So it's two examinations of four-and-a-half hours, each day after the other.

SIMON: Sleep heavily, but I understand a romance is at the heart of this film, which would - which does raise the question - well, look, international athletes have been known to get together. Does this go on, I mean - they share a lot in common, right?

DEVLIN: You know, when I first saw the movie - I got a preview version a few weeks ago - when I first saw it - and the mathematics was done very well. It was well put to it. But I just thought, you know, this love story was just spurious. I thought, come on. I just can't believe this. Why are they doing this? But then I delved into it. The director of the movie, Morgan Matthews, based it on a documentary he made for the BBC several years ago. And in that documentary, indeed, the young British mathematician, who was one of the team members, does go to China and falls in love, not with a competitor in the same competition, but with a Chinese mathematician. And they ended up getting married.

SIMON: Aw. You know, what the basic - the basic equation of life, Keith, is one plus one equals two, isn't it?

DEVLIN: (Laughter) You know, when...

SIMON: And then the two begins to equal three, but I won't go into that. Keith, how valid is that - I'm sure unfortunate - stereotype, from "The Big Bang Theory," you know, to even Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind," that math and science geniuses might be good with numbers, but they're just a little awkward with people?

DEVLIN: Yeah, you know - and if I had a niggling about the movie "A Brilliant Young Mind," it actually focuses on mathematicians - young mathematicians - who were sort of somewhat autistic. It was an interesting movie, right? If you've got someone with autistic tendencies, it makes it sort of interesting. But in fact, most of the kids that go to these competitions - they're smart, they're good mathematicians, but they're regular American kids that you see all over the place in shopping malls and at the ballgame and whatever.

SIMON: Do you say they're regular American kids because you are a mathematician at Stanford?

DEVLIN: (Laughter) Well...

SIMON: And those are the regular American kids you see there.

DEVLIN: Well - but I - and I see all sorts of other kids as well.

SIMON: And you never competed in the International Mathematics Olympiad.

DEVLIN: I would have done terrible in those things. I'm a very slow thinker. I don't think quickly. I can - with most of these problems if I, you know - if I put myself to it, it might take me a day or two to solve some of these problems and some of them I'd just give up on because I lose interest. But competitive math is something off on its own, and it's really got very little in common with professional mathematics people like me do.

SIMON: Keith Devlin is a mathematician at Stanford University and our math guy. Thanks so much for being with us.

DEVLIN: My pleasure, Scott.


DE LA SOUL: (Singing) Got to have soul. Three - that's the magic number. Yes, it is. It's the magic number. Somewhere in this hip-hop soul community was born three Mase, Dove and me and that's the magic number.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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