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Mathematics Goes to the Movies

by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross


Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician (1992)

This movie was inspired by the mathematician Renato Caccioppoli (1904-1959). Two other mathematicians feature prominently in the movie. Pietro, one of Renato’s students who is about to become a professor himself and Father Simplicio, who is also a priest.

Renato drawing something mathematical on the wall.

Renato lecturing. He is proving the Sandwich Theorem from calculus
(three continuous functions f,g,and h. If f\leq g \leq h and \lim_{x\to x_0} f(x) = \lim_{x\to x_0} h(x)=l, then \lim_{x]to \x_0} g(x)=l. )
STUDENT: Professor, may I ask an off-subject question?
RENATO: Of course
STUDENT: Why was Einstein opposed to quantum theory?
RENATO: According to Einstein God doesn’t play dice, and then you see, the world of truth in physics as the one in mathematics is as closed as a sphere. If a new vision is profound, it’s an escape from this sort of prison. You can have some resistance to escape or you cannot see the reason for it.

Some of Renato’s students and colleagues talking at lunch.
FATHER SIMPLICIO: Did you read the Mathematical Review?
PIETRO: Yes, I saw it.
FATHER SIMPLICIO: The sixth slashing is a row.
PIETRO: Renato asks for it. He goes to international meetings and mocks the scientific world. Americans, Swiss….

Renato has checked some of Pietro’s mathematics
PIETRO: You’ve checked everything. You did it very quickly, but it took me forever
RENATO: One shouldn’t love math too much. It should love you…
PIETRO: Actually, you did it all over again.
RENATO: Yes, but selfishly. I should have underlined the errors and make you come to the solution. It would have taken time
Turn to formula 25. The exponent is four, not three.

Some of Renato’s scribblings

Renato doing some calculations in his apartment.

blackboard in his apartment

Pietro talking to father Simplicio.
PIETRO: So this is my work for the chair competition. Renato had to check it, but started from scratch. I’m grateful. It’s planned in a better manner, but you know Renato, he rushes sometimes. You have patience, Father Simplicio and you’ll be discreet about all this. Will you help me check it through?
FATHER SIMPLICIO: I would give you a hand but it’s too late. Send your own work in then.
PIETRO: There’s an extension. I phoned Rome this morning.
FATHER SIMPLICIO: Let’s see. A mathematician’s career starts too early. One, two analysis exams and one almost has to discover a theorem.
PIETRO: You know one doesn’t learn mathematics. It’s an eye you have inside. It shows you a field of vision.
Immediately. You start young.
FATHER SIMPLICIO: I have no field of vision. I know you have to take it a step at a time.

Father Simplicio talking to Renato.
FATHER SIMPLICIO: They’ve pointed out important passages of your work. They’re delighted. If they can handle it Look: “Thanks to his sets we’ll have a geometrical measure theory.”

Another lecture theatre scene: Blackboards not clear enough for deciphering … some integral formula

Student writing on the blackboard. Taylor expansion … remainder tends to 0…
RENATO: It’s nice to see that woman have brains, too. A five minute suspension for this young lady.

Renato examining another student. Actually, Father Simplicio is asking all the questions.

Father Simplicio asking a question: Give me an example where the hypotheses are not fulfilled, but where the function is implicit.
RENATO: Lauretano, 26.
STUDENT (protesting): You didn’t follow my exam!
RENATO: Did you want a 29? Lauretano, 29. End of the movie.
Obituary:… Renato was the first to study problems in functional analysis which in the thirties received a great boost with Schauder’s research in Poland and Leray’s in France.