Math in the Movies with Jeff O’Connell

The Ohlone College professor collects math jokes from movies and TV.

In the 1941 film In the Navy, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello portray sailors working in a ship’s galley. Having just made 28 doughnuts, Costello proclaims that this batch will supply seven officers with thirteen doughnuts each. A fellow soldier questions this.

“Seven times thirteen is 28,” Costello insists.

“That’s ridiculous,” the challenger retorts. “Seven times four is 28.”

“Seven times four is 28? He must have went to a cheap school,” Costello mocks. At a chalkboard, he uses three different techniques to “prove” that seven times thirteen amounts to 28. But it doesn’t.

Jeff O’Connell will screen this clip and many more during his “Math in the Movies” presentation on Friday, May 14, in Room 3201 of Building 3 at Ohlone College (43600 Mission Blvd., Fremont), where he is an associate professor of mathematics. Other clips include a scene from Die Hard With a Vengeance depicting Bruce Willis using math to defuse a bomb, and one from The Wizard of Oz in which the Scarecrow recites a theorem about isosceles triangles after the Wizard grants him a “thinkology” degree.

“It turns out that there’s a huge math mistake in The Wizard of Oz,” said O’Connell, who attended high school in Pleasanton and plays guitar in Volume Control, a rock band that performs regularly at Fremont’s Mojo Lounge. “Not only did they make this mistake in the movie, but many years later, characters in The Simpsons made fun of that mistake, knowing it was a mistake.”

Despite the presentation’s title, it also includes clips from television shows including The Office and, of course, The Simpsons, whose original writing staff “had three Ph.Ds in math and a Ph.D in physics,” O’Connell said. “They loved writing about math, and the show’s very first episode has a great calculus joke in it.”

A similar lecture that he presented two years ago proved so popular that he created this sequel. It’s part of his mission to make mathematics more accessible to the general public. “I love it when I’m walking across campus and someone says, ‘Hey, I saw your talk,’ and this leads to a discussion about which math class they should take next semester,” said O’Connell, who has also done popular presentations on card-counting, Internet security, and the golden ratio.

“If everybody learns a couple of things, we’re fine,” he said. Many Americans fear math “because you almost never get to meet math at the level where you’ll understand it. If I try to explain to you how beautiful calculus is but you’ve only studied as far as geometry, you won’t understand what I’m saying. But if I say the same things to my calculus class, they’ll understand, because they’ve had the prerequisite material. This is where the disconnect comes in.”

Never an elitist, O’Connell tailors his approach to each audience depending on its level of math skills. “I just want everyone to know that I think math is beautiful.” Noon, free.


Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

clear sky
51.6 ° F
54 °
49 °
71 %
2 %
56 °
58 °
60 °
60 °
61 °