If you haven’t seen the movie Hidden Figures yet, we highly recommend it. The movie follows three female African American mathematicians who worked at NASA as computers, before there were machines to do that work. It’s a great movie and the audience at my viewing laughed, cried, and cheered.
If you’re interested in other movies that feature a main character as a mathematician or engineer, here are my favorites. By the way, the first eight movies are based on real people, showing that mathematicians and engineers lead interesting and important lives!
1. Hidden Figures, 2017
This is an inspirational movie that tells the story of three African American women mathematicians who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. The movie is very entertaining and can appeal to the young and old. The movie highlights the “Hidden Figures” that made space flight possible and shows how important math was for getting our astronauts into space, and more importantly, safely back home. The movie is based on the book by Margot Shetterly called “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race”.
2. Apollo 13, 1995
This is another movie about NASA. What was supposed to be the third landing on the moon, instead turned into a potential catastrophe. For some, the heroes in the movie are the astronauts. For me, the heroes of the movie are the engineers who quickly figured out how to solve an unprecedented problem. “Houston we have a problem” is a famous quote from Apollo 13 and it took a large team of dedicated people to fix the problem. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on the book “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13” by astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.
3. The Theory of Everything, 2014
Stephan Hawking is considered one of the most brilliant minds of our time. He is a theoretical physicist, which is someone who uses mathematical models and abstractions to explain natural phenomena. This movie follows Hawking’s life from college to decades later when he was a Professor of Mathematics meeting the Queen of England. Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time” was on the New York Times best seller list for over 2 years! The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on a book by Jane Wilde Hawking called “Travelling to Infinity”.
4. The Imitation Game, 2014
This movie is about the team that decrypted German intelligence codes during World War II. If you know the history of computers, you may be familiar with the name of the main character – Alan Turing. While code was previously decrypted by hand, Turing created a decryption machine. Some consider Turing the creator of modern computing. The movie is based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges.
5. Stand and Deliver, 1988
Stand and Deliver is based on the true story of a high school math teacher, Jaime Escalante. Escalante’s school served mostly poor, Latino students who were struggling at school and home. Escalante went against common practice and set a goal for his class to take the Advanced Placement Calculus test by their senior year. Escalante was able to use math to help his students tap into their true potential. A book called “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America” by Jay Mathews was published the same year as the movie’s release.
6. A Beautiful Mind, 2001
This movie’s main character, John Nash, was a mathematician who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his Game Theory. However, the movie is about his struggle with mental health.The movie won an Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on the best selling book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar.
7. 21, 2008
This movie shows one of the ways brilliant minds can use their math skills. It is inspired by the true story of the MIT Blackjack Team, which involved college students using their extraordinary math skills to win big at casinos. The movie is based on the book “Bringing Down the House” by Ben Mezrich. However, there is some controversy over how accurate the book and movie are to real life. But the premise of a MIT Blackjack Team is accurate and the main character is based on a real person who graduated from MIT with a mechanical engineering degree.
8. October Sky, 1999
This is the true story of Homer Hickam, who is from a small coal mining town in West Virginia. As a child, Hickam was inspired by Sputnik to become a NASA engineer. He also realized education was a way he could leave his hometown for more opportunities. Although not covered in the movie, Hickam received a degree in Industrial Engineering and after a stint in the Army during Vietnam, he worked as an aerospace engineer at NASA. He also became a successful author, including his best selling biography, “Rocket Boys”, which is the basis of the movie, and several novels.
9. Good Will Hunting, 1997
This is a fictional story about a brilliant, self-taught janitor named Will Hunting, and a math professor. The math professor recognizes Hunting’s brilliance and helps him find a better future. The movie was written by, and stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck before anyone had heard of them. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
10. The Abyss, 1989
This fictional story is about recovering an American submarine that sank in the Caribbean. The American SEAL team works with an oil platform crew to recover the submarine before the Russians get to it. One of the stars of the movie is the designer of the platform who joins the rescue team. Although they don’t specifically refer to her as a civil engineer, since she designed the platform she most likely was a civil engineer. Unlike the other movies on this list, math does not play a large role in this movie. However, we love the idea of a civil engineer designer donning dive gear to recover warhead missiles to stop a catastrophe!
If you have any other suggestions for best movies in which mathematicians or engineers play a major role, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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