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Review: Adventures of a Mathematician


- Germany’s Thor Klein tackles the biography of the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, who took part in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb

Review: Adventures of a Mathematician
Philippe Tlokinski in Adventures of a Mathematician

Perhaps the most tragic but also the most ironic words on the invention of the atomic bomb were uttered by Albert Einstein - “no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap” – the very man who, in 1939, had suggested US President Franklin D. Roosevelt hurry to build one to use against Hitler (“my one great mistake”, he later admitted). The fact remains that the atomic bomb was a sore point for a very long time (and still is today) and, in the field of mass culture, the Manhattan Project was the inspiration behind films, TV series and comic book characters, such as Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan. 

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Among the many individuals taking part in the Project, there was even the Jewish mathematician of Polish origins Stanislaw Ulam, who told his story in a book published in 1983, a year before his death. This autobiography forms the basis of the present movie, which bears the same title as the book, Adventures of a Mathematician, is co-produced by Germany, Poland and the UK, is directed by German filmmaker Thor Klein (this being his second feature film) and is screening in competition at this year’s Bergamo Film Meeting.  Born in Lwow in 1909, Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski) was invited to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in 1935, by the great Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann (Fabian Kociecki), or “Johnny”, as Ulam called him. Wonderfully shot by Tudor Vladimir Panduru (and boasting brilliant set design and costumes courtesy of Florian Kaposi and Justyna Stolarz), the film sees the two men exchanging witty banter – as is the tendency with mathematicians – and Jewish jokes, and then in Cambridge, Ulam goes on to meet French national Françoise Aron (Esther Garrel), whom he eventually marries.

Just a few days before war breaks out, Ulam has settled permanently in the USA as a teacher at Harvard and is joined by his younger brother Adam (Mateusz Wieclawek). The two of them worry about what will happen to their sister Stefania and their parents back in Nazi-occupied Poland. Ulam loves card games and enjoys showing his students tricks based on probability theory. But his life takes an abrupt turn when von Neumann suggests he fly to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb. Ulam’s name isn’t as well-known as that of Manhattan Project Coordinator Robert Oppenheimer (played by Ryan Gage in the film), Edward Teller (Joel Basman) or Enrico Fermi, but what is interesting is the fact that Ulam was responsible for the Monte Carlo method, one of his most important ideas in Los Alamos, which is a technique by which physical processes, such as chain reactions, are simulated using a computer to generate random numbers. Ulam was able to make great mental leaps, opening up new paths in the field of mathematics.

But what about the ethics behind his choices, such as those which led Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, to protest against the construction of this monstrous weapon of mass destruction, after the war? As Martin Gardner pointed out in his review of the book in the New York Times, “Ulam […] does not consider in this book the deep moral dilemmas over how the explosive results of science should be controlled by society. Of the great controversy that raged over whether the H‐bomb should be built, Ulam has little to say”. Klein’s biopic speaks of the great motivation which drove these scientists of European origins to work on a bomb with the capacity to bring Nazism to a grinding halt. But once Germany had surrendered, this motivation diminished for many people, and debate over its use became heated. Shocked, like many others, by the release of atomic bombs over Japan, and despite the departure of many of his colleagues, Ulam nonetheless continued to work in Los Alamos.

Adventures of a Mathematician is produced by Dragonfly Films, Mirror Productions, Shipsboy, Zischlermann Filmproduktion, Lipsync Productions and Sampsonic Media, in co-production with Erfttal Film and True Illusions Films, and in association with Telewizja Polska, NFP Marketing & Distribution and ZDF/Arte, with Indie Sales handling international rights.

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(Translated from Italian)

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