The Man Who Knew Infinity
IFC Films, 2015.
In theaters April 29
For the brilliant mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, every positive integer was a personal friend, according to his colleague John Edensor Littlewood. Starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan, this biopic portrays the brief life of the visionary mathematician, who achieved incredible breakthroughs in such fields as number theory, infinite series and mathematical analysis—including devising a landmark formula to calculate how many different ways one could sum up each positive integer. The film follows Ramanujan from his origins as an autodidact and shipping clerk in what was then Madras, India, to England, where he traveled to study and work with University of Cambridge mathematician Godfrey Harold (“G. H.”) Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons). Despite their differences in background, culture and education, the two men formed a profound bond grounded in their love for numbers, sometimes to the exclusion of other people. The movie offers a touching look at their relationship and the revolutionary discoveries they achieved in their short collaboration.
Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
by Nathalia Holt
Little, Brown, 2016 ($27)
“Before Apple, before IBM, and before our modern definition of a central processing unit partnered with memory, a computer referred simply to a person who computes,” writes scientist and author Holt in this chronicle of the human “computers” who helped to launch America's space program. Most computers were women, and the story starts with a team at the fledgling Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1940s, before it became a NASA center. Using pencils, paper and slide rules, they performed the mathematical calculations necessary to develop jet planes and rockets. Many of the computers kept working through the 1960s and later; some became engineers. Holt investigates the fascinating lives and important contributions of these women, who defied the sexist stereotypes of their times to play pivotal roles in sending the first rockets beyond Earth.
Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens
by Steve Olson.
W.W. Norton, 2016 ($27.95)
The death map grabs your attention. Spread over two pages in this chronicle of modern America's most infamous volcano, it lists the names and locations of 57 people killed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Hikers, a geologist and the most well-known victim, a stubborn man named Harry Truman, who refused to leave his lodge despite the two months of earthquakes that led up to the explosion, are pinned to their last known spots. To explain what people were doing in the danger zone, journalist Olson reconstructs what Earth scientists knew—and underestimated—about the volcano. The bulk of Olson's book, though, is about the land and people in this part of Washington State, a place of change during the preceding century, where roads and towns and the timber business, and even a zeal for conservation, brought people ever closer to the mountain, lured into harm's way. —Josh Fischman
The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb
by Neal Bascomb.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 ($28)
During World War II, the German effort to develop a nuclear bomb hinged on a rare substance called heavy water. Like the A-bomb the U.S. was pursuing at the same time, the Nazi design relied on nuclear fission: as an atomic nucleus breaks apart, it releases neutrons that shatter other nuclei, resulting in the liberation of more neutrons in a chain reaction that ultimately runs out of control and detonates. Whereas the U.S. used graphite to slow neutrons enough to allow the chain reaction to proceed, the Nazi bomb needed heavy water. To thwart the plan, the Allies launched a high-stakes commando raid to destroy a Norwegian power plant that was Germany's sole source of heavy water. Writer Bascomb brings this overlooked tale of wartime nuclear sabotage to life while taking care to explain the science behind the story. —Jennifer Hackett