There are many cinematic and documentary movies about mathematics and mathematicians in every field of mathematics. Particularly in logic, set theory and philosophy of mathematics, which are my research fields one can find plenty of such interesting movies easily. These movies explain complicated technical mathematical and philosophical ideas in a simple language. Also they can introduce the historical development of the subject and show the mathematical and non-mathematical aspects of the life of the professional mathematicians.

I have an idea to use these movies for motivating undergraduate students for doing simple new researches in the scientific aspects of the movie during the semester and give a lecture about the results at the end but I am hesitated about the possible positive or negative aspects of such a teaching idea.

Is it a good idea to use movies for motivating undergraduate students? In the other words, what kind of benefits and harms such an idea can have? and, how should a teacher use these movies to have maximum benefits and less harms? Are these movies useful for graduate students too?

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure that I quite understand this question, in the sense that I do not know your definition of a "movie". Do you mean a documentary with a half-decent budget and intended for lay people (I have memories of a BBC Horizon documentary on Fermat's Last Theorem), or do you mean something more...dry...? $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 9:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user1729: I mean two categories. Documentary math movies like BBC documentaries, Dangerous Knowledge, The Story of Maths, To Infinity and Beyond, etc and cinematic math movies like A Beautiful Mind, Travelling Salesman, Proof, Professor and his Beloved Equation,etc. The last one is the best tool for introducing $e, \pi$ to students which is related to one of your answers. $\endgroup$
    – user230
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ I love the movie Not Knot $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ If you do mean TV series like BBC's The Story of Maths, I don't think "documentary movies" is the right word for it. $\endgroup$
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 12:51

1 Answer 1


As Sturgeon's revelation ("90% of everything is crap") teaches us, it depends.

I'd say most of what you'll find off-the-shelf can motivate a general appreciation of , and perhaps get some key points across. To really teach requires a much more organized and larger effort.

My favorite example of this is Sesame Street. It manages to teach small children with some success. But the group behind its production is massive, and the resources devoted equally so. And they have the advantage that it is quite unlikely that a breakthrough changes the order of the letters in the alphabet any time soon, while in our subject matter we expect such all the time (perhaps not in the subject itself, but at least in how to teach it effectively).


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