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New films explore the pain and the pleasure of maths

Moment of Truth

Moment of Truth

Press release issued: 22 December 2009

A new film project that gives an insight into the extraordinary research carried out by Bristol mathematicians is being unveiled at the University of Bristol this week.

A new film project that gives an insight into the extraordinary research carried out by Bristol mathematicians is being unveiled at the University of Bristol this week.

Chrystal Cherniwchan, Azita Ghassemi and Professor Jon Keating, from the University’s Department of Mathematics have been working on a sequence of five short documentary films exploring how mathematicians think and work, their passion for the subject, what their motivations are, and how they view themselves. 

The film project, entitled Mathematical ethnographies, is the brainchild of Professor Keating, and is a collaboration with Chrystal Cherniwchan and Azita Ghassemi, who have backgrounds in photography and filmmaking.  The films aim to inspire people about maths and will be shown at schools, galleries and festivals around the country.

Together the team shot more than 100 hours of interviews with over 60 people, exploring the pain and pleasure of doing research in maths. These included interviews with eminent professors such as Sir Michael Berry, Sir John Kingman, Elmer Rees and John Shepherdson.

Chrystal Cherniwchan said: “The impact of mathematics on science and society is ever-increasing.  Members of the Department interact with colleagues from a variety of disciplines ranging from physics, to social sciences, to biology, to medicine. We hope that by producing these films about the compelling work we do, we can inspire people, and in turn the next generation of mathematicians.”

She continued: “The interviews begin from the first spark of childhood interest in maths and cover topics such as the research process, ideas, and that elusive moment when it all comes together. Some people call it the ‘Aha! moment’. I wish I could know what it feels like to work on something for years and then finally solve it. If more people thought about that, maybe they would be more interested in mathematics and the sciences.“

Azita Ghassemi added: “ These films have been a year-long labour of love, which have put me in touch with the hidden aspects of what goes on emotionally and psychologically with mathematicians when they seem to be ‘preoccupied’ in their world.  For me, this project brought into the light the humanity of what it means to be a mathematician: their agonies and ecstasies, joys and sorrows, triumphs and disappointments.”

The film project, funded by the University of Bristol Alumni Fund, can be viewed from the University’s School of Mathematics website at


Further information

The films were first premiered on Friday 27 November at the Arnolfini in Bristol.

The University’s Department of Mathematics is one of the three largest departments of the Faculty of Science, with almost 50 full-time faculty members. The Department is a multinational place, with staff from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Switzerland, UK, Ukraine and USA. The diversity of talent and training fosters a unique outward-looking Department that connects with Mathematics worldwide.

Some comments received from people after the screening of the videos:

Professor Christophe Andrieu: ‘Congratulations on the films. In addition to the artistic touch, I thought that they also had a therapeutic value!’

Philippa Bayley: ‘The Mathematical Ethnographies give a rare and sensitive insight into the bright minds and thinking of mathematicians. The stories they tell - at times tender, at times despairing - make compulsive viewing and leave you both touched and inspired. I would not have expected to feel the beauty of a mathematical proof as tingles down my spine, nor to see mathematicians moved to tears as they talked about their work. A rare and valuable piece of filmmaking.’

Please contact Caroline Clancy for further information.
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