Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Imagine Science Film Festival Review: Fermat's Room

First, I should tell you that the film is in Spanish, and if you can read, it's worth watching. Oh, and it's a math movie. So those who don't like math or reading are better off renting Dumb and Dumber-- but for everyone else, Fermat's Room is a fantastic movie, full of suspense and deception.
Four of Spain's brightest mathematicians are invited to a prestigious dinner party to discuss great mathematical enigmas. They do eat dinner, and they do solve a few word problems, but more importantly they are trapped in a room with a killer. It's not just any room, either. The room is rigged to hydraulic presses that push the walls in with every second that passes the alloted time that the mathematicians are given to solve a riddle. I won't give away the ending, but suffice it to say that some live, and some die.

Here are a couple of Fermat's puzzles to ponder, just in case you are invited to a mysterious dinner party before you're able to see the film:

1. In “False Land” everyone always lies. In “Truth Land” everyone always tells the truth. A stranger is trapped between two doors, each one guarded by a jailer. One of the guards is from "False Land," and one is from “Truth Land,” but the stranger doesn't know which jailer is from where.
One door leads to freedom, and the other doesn't. The stranger can only ask one question to one jailer. What should he ask to be sure that he knows which is the door to freedom?

2. How can you time a period of nine minutes when you only have two sand clocks, one that measures four minutes and one that measures seven minutes?

Dr Atomic: Doomed to Bomb?

“Art-Science?” hissed an anonymous opera-loving artist and dean at the City University of New York, when I asked if she would be going to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Dr. Atomic. “Science will only dilute true art. I expect it to bomb. I’ll read the review to confirm,” she snapped.
“But give it a shot– at least it’s not completely factually accurate, so you might like it…there could be some artistic merit, right?” I pleaded.


The anonymous dean is not the only one to protest the intermingling of science and art, but I believe these types will be missing out on a truly fantastic production. While the building of the first atomic bomb took about 27 months to complete, John Adams and Peter Sellers poured over the creation of Dr. Atomic for approximately six years. The result is a feast for all the senses. The set is appropriately stark and jagged and the sounds are heavy and intense (the Met installed a six zone surround sound for the very first time). Equally essential, the crashing and thundering causes not only the heart to beat, but also affects that other organ– the brain– in a way that only a work based on true experience can. There truth is…there is nothing more frightening than the truth, and for the most part Adams and Sellers stuck to the facts.

In fact, the libretto (written by Peter Sellers) is largely a compilation of quotes. Though this does not make for a hummable tune, there’s really no need of such a gimmick– the lines are too haunting to forget.

“The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing that at this loss I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card,” says Oppenheimer, who was, ironically, a graduate of the Ethical Culture School. Whether or not the creation of the bomb was ethical is debatable, but the production of the opera is certainly ethereal. Perhaps it takes art to find make something divine from a rubble of destruction.