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Mathematics Goes to the Movies

by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross


October Sky (1999)

HOMER: Scholarships for winning a science fair?
Teacher, MRS. RILEY: Well, maybe it is not for you.
HOMER: What do you mean?
MS. RILEY: Homer, you got a great mind, but science requires math, which has never been one of your favorite subjects.
MS. RILEY: Can’t just dream your way out of Coalwood Homer.

Ms. Riley gives Homer a book: Principles of guided missile design.
MS. RILEY: I had Miss Waters order it for you a while ago. It just came in. I know the math is too advanced for you. It is for me too. There is calculus, differential equations…
HOMER: I’ll learn the math. This is great Miss Riley. I’ll learn everything. It’s the best present anyone’s ever given me.

By doing the math Homer figures out that it wasn’t their rocket that had started the fire in the woods.
Quentin (his nerdy friend): Homer, you figured this equation out by yourself?
HOMER: If I did the math right, it proved that you can’t …
QUENTIN: It proves we didn’t start that fire!
HOMER: The AUKXIII was the only one we couldn’t find that day and our best guess for fall time with the AUKXII, which is exactly identical, was about 14 seconds. If you help me with the trig part, Quentin, we should be able to make a good guess where that rocket landed.

PRINCIPLE of the school: You cannot prove conclusively that another one of then (rockets) didn’t start that fire.
HOMER: Yes, I can.
Steps up to the blackboard and starts drawing.
PRINCIPLE : Are we to conclude, Mr Hickam, that since leaving school you’ve not only become a rocket expert and rocket science but also an expert in trigonometry,
HOMER: I didn’t say I was.
PRINCIPLE : Obviously you learned more in the coal mines than you did in high school.
MS RILEY: Let the boy talk. Go ahead Homer.
HOMER: That fire was near Welch, just under three miles from our launch pad. And at the time of the fire, the best that we could do was 1.2 miles, which is exactly where we found that rocket, Mr Turner. See, Mr. Turner, that rocket fell for about 14 seconds, which means that it flew to an altitude of 3000 feet according to the equation “S” equals one-half “at” squared, where “S” is the altitude, “a” is the gravity constant, or 32 and “t” is the time it took the rocket to come back down. Velocity equals acceleration times time.
QUENTIN (mumbling to himself): Get him Homer.
HOMER: Are you following this, Mr. Turner?
PRINCIPLE: All right, we’re all duly impressed. But would you tell me that if you did not start that fire, who did?