Science Corner: Math Goes Sci-Fi & A Blog Film Festival

3D render of 3 dice

Couldn’t resist a three cubes visual pun. (Photo by erik_stein)

In the ten-day window when the dates are all palindromes (9 10 19, 9 11 19, etc.), let’s have some math news. Fans of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy can rarely pass up an opportunity for a 42 reference. The number is famously the answer given in the book to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. And now, it is also the answer to which number was most recently proven to be representable as the sum of three cubes. As with many math puzzles, the statement is simple but the solution is challenging. Given an integer like 42, find three other integers that, when cubed, add up to 42. As it happens, the numbers in question turn out to be -80538738812075974, 80435758145817515, and 12602123297335631. They are on the order of tens of quadrillions; those numbers are so big I had to install special software on my computer just to verify the solution. So you can imagine it would take a while to try all the smaller possibilities and combinations.

In fact, the search took 1.3 million hours of computing, which is about 150 years. At this point, you might be wondering what computers they were using in 1869, or what time machine brought us the answer from 2143. Or maybe you realize those hours weren’t all consecutive, but instead run on multiple computers simultaneously. Half a million home PCs, to be specific, all donating processing power to projects of this nature. I have some enthusiasm for such projects, and have at times donated computing resources to them myself. Although seeing the quantity of resources spent on this particular question, and thinking about recent reports of the carbon cost of computational research, I wonder if I should have more reservations. Should we put more thought into what kinds of computational projects are worth those costs? Can we even know in advance which ones are worth it? Or should we instead focus on carbon neutral ways of providing electricity for computation?

To be clear, I am happy to see both abstract and applied mathematics and computer science research get funding and go forward. And the same questions of cost and value could be applied to my own work or to any use of computational resources. This story just happened to come with clear and substantial numbers, at a time when the topic was on my mind. Ideally I’d like to see computation continue to become more efficient and electricity generation to depend less on carbon sources. At the same time, I can recognize that we don’t live in those ideal conditions yet. And so I wonder what steps can be taken in academic research to be more energy conscious. Have you implemented any changes to your research program, whatever your field may be, to reduce consumption of limited resources?


I have attempted in various ways to replicate a book club via this blog, hoping to spark conversation around various books on science, the history of science and the intersection of science and theology. Real talk: those book-related posts tend to be among my least read. Consequently, they rarely generate much discussion. Hannah Eagleson wisely pointed out to me that folks simply may not have time to read more books and then talk about them. By contrast, two hours to watch a movie is less of a commitment. And in the case of many sci-fi films, you may have already seen the movie. So this fall we’re going to try a little science fiction film festival on the blog and see where that takes us.

Each week or two, we’ll have a new film to discuss. My blog posts themselves will be in a conversation format; I’ll trade e-mails with someone about the film and then edit those threads into a post. Then you all can join in the discussion here in the comments or on social media. You are also invited to be a contributor and chat with me about a film of your choice. Comment below with a movie suggestion and I’ll get in touch.

Why sci-fi films? This Guillermo del Toro quote puts it well: “The fantastic is the only tool we have nowadays to explain spirituality to a generation that refuses to believe in dogma or religion. Superhero movies create a kind of mythology. Creature movies, horror movies, create at least a belief in something beyond.” (This blog post brought that quote to my attention.)

And if you want to watch along our first film will be Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Hey, it’s been 20 years and it represents the chronological beginning of a saga that will be concluding this December. I hope you can join us; we’ll save you a seat.

And if that’s not enough sci-fi talk for you, don’t forget that this Friday, September 13th, 2019, I will be giving a talk on Avengers Endgame in Lancaster, PA. And I will be at TheoCon at Messiah College in a couple of weeks, on Saturday September 28th. Maybe I will see some of you in person at one of those events!

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Bob Trube commented on September 11, 2019 Reply

    Andy, I was thinking ESN needs some film discussions. What could be more ESN that a sci-fi film festival? Great idea!

      Andy Walsh commented on September 17, 2019 Reply

      Thanks. It was Hannah’s idea, but I’m happy to see it through. I hope folks enjoy it. A great line-up of films and guests is coming together.

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