Documentaries and Special Event Recordings

People who do and use mathematics often have fascinating stories and adventures to tell related to their work; and partly because their work itself is often hard for non-mathematicians to comprehend, these stories can have a special interest. Sometimes mathematicians' experiences are as unusual as those of the homeless but much-loved and celebrated Paul Erdős; sometimes their adventures are as unusual as astronaut Michael Foale's rescuing of the Mir space station.

As part of MSRI's commitment to telling the story of mathematics, we have produced a number of films about mathematicians; many have been directed by George Csicsery of Zala Films, whose first film about a mathematician, N is a Number, has become a classic. We think that each has something interesting for mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike!
This page contains information about both films produced for public broadcast as well as recordings of special events and lectures that are not part of MSRI's research programs or workshops. (For streaming videos from mathematical lectures at MSRI, please visit our main video page.)


Math Documentaries by Zala Films

If you have questions regarding DVD purchases from Zala Films, you can email us for assistance.

Filmed in Canada, Iran, and the United States, Secrets of the Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani examines the life and mathematical work of Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian immigrant to the United States who became a superstar in her field. In 2014, she was both the first woman and the first Iranian to be honored by mathematics’ highest prize, the Fields Medal. Mirzakhani’s contributions are explained in the film by leading mathematicians and illustrated by animated sequences. Her mathematical colleagues from around the world, as well as former teachers, classmates, and students in Iran today, convey the deep impact of her achievements. The path of her education, success on Iran’s Math Olympiad team, and her brilliant work, make Mirzakhani an ideal role model for girls looking toward careers in science and mathematics.

Hundreds of Navajo children in recent years have found themselves at the center of a lively collaboration with mathematicians from around the world. The children stay late after school and assemble over the summer to study mathematics, using a model called math circles, which originated in Eastern Europe and has proliferated across the United States. This notion of student-centered learning puts children in charge of exploring mathematics to their own joy and satisfaction, with potentially long-lasting results. Navajo Math Circles, a one-hour film, documents this process over a two year period.

In April 2013, a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire submitted a paper to the Annals of Mathematics. Within weeks word spread—a little-known mathematician, with no permanent job, working in complete isolation had made an important breakthrough towards solving the Twin Prime Conjecture. Yitang Zhang's techniques for bounding the gaps between primes soon led to rapid progress by the Polymath Group, and a further innovation by James Maynard. The film is a study of Zhang's rise from obscurity and a disadvantaged youth to mathematical celebrity. The story of quiet perseverance amidst adversity, and Zhang's preference for thinking and working in solitude, is interwoven with a history of the Twin Prime Conjecture as told by several mathematicians, many of whom have wrestled with this enormously challenging problem in Number Theory: Daniel Goldston, Kannan Soundararajan, Andrew Granville, Peter Sarnak, Enrico Bombieri, James Maynard, Nicholas Katz, David Eisenbud, Ken Ribet, and Terry Tao.
These recorded conversations between Yitang Zhang and David Eisenbud, Daniel Goldston and Kannan Soundararajan contain much more detail about Zhang’s life and mathematical work than the completed one-hour film.

Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern (2011)

Taking the Long View examines the life of a remarkable mathematician whose formidable mathematical contributions were matched by an approach and vision that helped build bridges between China and the West. The biographical documentary follows Shiing-shen Chern (1911-2004) through many of the most dramatic events of the 20th century, portraying a man who dedicated his life to pure mathematics with the style of a classical Chinese sage. Chern is considered a father of modern differential geometry, and among his many accomplishments, he was a co-founder of MSRI.

In 1997, Michael Foale was the American astronaut on board the Russian space station Mir at the time of a failed docking attempt with an unmanned Progress supply ship. The supply ship collided with Mir, punching a hole in one of the modules of Mir, damaging a number of the solar panels, and inducing a tumbling motion that prevented the remaining solar panels from pointing toward the sun. The result was that the air pressure began to decline precipitously, and after a period of time all electric power was lost. By sealing off the punctured module, the crew was able to restore the required air pressure, but the tumbling motion seemed a more intractable problem. Michael Foale proposed using the thrusters on an attached Soyuz vehicle that served as an emergency evacuation “life boat” and had an independent power supply. The problem was how to use those thrusters to transform the tumbling motion into a regular spin about an axis that would keep the undamaged solar panel facing in the direction of the sun, and thus restore electricity to the station.

In The Right Spin, Foale provides his personal account of the experience, and explains the mathematical methods involved in rescuing Mir from what would almost certainly have been its demise had they been forced to evacuate and leave it tumbling without power until it burned up re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. Production of this film was made possible with support from the Clay Mathematics Institute, MSRI, and the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics.

A portrait of two very different mathematicians, porridge pulleys and pi features Fields medalist Vaughan Jones, one of the world’s foremost knot theorists and an avid windsurfer, and Hendrik Lenstra, a number theorist with a passion for Homer and all things classical. The film poses the question: how do we get first-rate research mathematicians? Hendrik Lenstra and Vaughan Jones have had an extraordinary impact on mathematics; this charming documentary gives the viewer a taste of their personalities, mathematical and otherwise. A whirlwind tour of knots, genomics, cryptography, music, Homer, elliptic curves, art and windsurfing, the video contains sections on the history of Pi, and a surprising discovery involving a cocoa tin and an Escher print.

Short Films about MSRI

17 Gauss Way from MSRI on Vimeo.

AMS/MSRI Congressional Briefings

MSRI and the American Mathematical Society (AMS) host two Congressional briefings on mathematical topics each year in Washington, D.C. to inform members of Congress and Congressional staff about new developments made possible through federal support of basic science research.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides the majority of funding for the basic research necessary to unlock the enormous potential applications of the mathematical sciences. AMS and MSRI appreciate the NSF’s farsighted commitment to this investment.

To view videos from these briefings, visit the Congressional Briefings page.

Critical Issues in Mathematics Education

This series of annual workshops at MSRI addresses key problems in math education today. They are designed to engage mathematicians, mathematics education researchers, and K-12 teachers as participants. All presentations are recorded and can be found by clicking the video icon next to the title of any recorded session on the workshop schedule pages below.

May 12 Celebration of Women in Mathematics

The Celebration of Women in Mathematics on May 12 is part of an international initiative to inspire women everywhere to celebrate their achievements in mathematics, and to encourage an open, welcoming, and inclusive work environment for everybody. May 12 was chosen for this annual event, as it is the birthdate of Fields medalist Maryam Mirzakhani. Since 2019, MSRI has hosted on-site and/or online programming to showcase the work of women in mathematics.

Video from the 2021 online event:

Act from Thought: The Case for Basic Science Research

As part of the 2015 National Math Festival in Washington, D.C., the Act from Thought gala dinner made an eloquent case for the importance of basic science research. Many governments are currently redirecting money for basic research into more applied areas. Tempting as this is, it risks losing the spectacular payoffs that basic research has provided in the past — and can provide in the future.

Presentations from the National Math Festival

The National Math Festival brings together some of the most fascinating mathematicians of our time to inspire and challenge all ages to see math in new and unexpected ways. Organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and the National Museum of Mathematics, this free, public event for all ages takes place every other year in Washington, D.C., although 2021 Festival activites took place online due to the ongoing pandemic. You can experience the Festival through these recorded presentations and other videos featuring many of the mathematicians who have participated in these events. These videos are intended for a general audience and cover a wide variety of topics, from the mathematics behind scientific and natural phenomena to art, music, literature, and more. (Please note: math talks at the 2019 Festival were not recorded.)

Sample 2021 Festival math talk:

2021 National Math Festival - "Infinite Powers: The Story of Calculus" with Dr. Steven Strogatz from MSRI / National Math Festival on Vimeo.

Finding Common Ground Math Education Forum

Leading voices in the math education profession came together in Washington, D.C. in April 2015 to discuss college and career-readiness standards and mathematics teacher preparation and licensing. The forum, co-sponsored by MSRI and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), shared best practices and next steps regarding implementation of standards across states.

Some additional film content from this event, as well as further discussion with presenters, is available via Illustrative Mathematics as part of their 2015-2016 Virtual Lecture Series, "Speaking of Mathematics Education: Productive Conversations with Families".

Not on the Test: The Pleasure and Uses of Mathematics

Each link below will take you to the event page for the individual lecture - scroll down to find the video footage below the event description. Only lectures which were recorded are listed below.

New Horizons in Undergraduate Mathematics

This series showcases great lecturers speaking on topics from current research (at time of filming) that are both important, accessible, and ready to enter the undergraduate curriculum.

Symposium on Global Warming: From Global Predictions to Local Action

MSRI Biology Colloquium

  • For a listing of all talks and their videos for our Biology Colloquium series, please see the Biology Colloquium page.

Other Special Events and Public Lectures

Committee on Academic Sponsors Day Presentations