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Read the Book, See the Film: “Flatland” is Program Opener

Ellen Gilbert

The publication of Flatland: The Movie Edition, a companion volume to a new movie version of Edwin Abbott’s classic 1884 mathematical novel, served as the occasion for last week’s opening program in “Thinking Allowed,” a collaborative effort between Princeton University Press and the Princeton Public Library, featuring talks at the library by authors of newly-released PU Press books.

Brown University mathematician Thomas Banchoff spoke before and after a showing of the animated movie, which features the voices of Martin Sheen as the two-dimensional Arthur Square, and Kristen Bell, as his granddaughter, Hex. Michael York is the voice of the mysterious stranger who helps to enlighten Arthur about the existence of three dimensions, and, consequently, Hex, who already has her suspicions.

Princeton University Press executive math editor Vicky Kearn introduced Mr. Banchoff, whom she described as “Mr. Flatland.” It was Ms. Kearn who alerted Mr. Banchoff to the movie-in-the-making; he ultimately became an advisor to the production and created the new book, which includes an introduction by him, as well as the original text of Flatland, essays by movie creators Seth Caplan, Jeffrey Travis, and Dano Johnson, and images from the film. The book is dedicated “To teachers who inspire and expand our imagination.”

A Favorite Book

Mr. Banchoff, a native Trentonian, said he fell in love with Flatland when he first read it as a 10-year-old. While it is ostensibly a story about mathematics, he noted, it is also a closely-observed satire of Victorian England, which is “still fresh” today. It has been translated into 20 languages, and there were several earlier film versions of it, including one that was created at Harvard University and narrated by Dudley Moore in the 1960s, before computer animation.

Mr. Banchoff described Abbott as a “teacher par excellence,” who wanted to get his students to open up to new ideas. “It is difficult to summarize the life work of a man as broad as Abbott,” Mr. Banchoff wrote in an earlier article, “but one theme emerges which unifies most of his efforts. He was concerned primarily with miracles and illusions, which in a very real sense he considered to be the same thing. We cannot know the Transcendental directly, and if ever we do receive glimpses of this realm, we will not be able to communicate our insights clearly. Yet we must try, using all the imperfect means of communication at our disposal even though we risk being misunderstood, rejected, and finally persecuted. This is the central lesson of the Gospels, and Abbott was a theologian who cared about the way the Gospels were received, in their own day and in his day.”

Besides being a distinguished teacher, Mr. Banchoff observed, Abbott was also “a social leader, who wanted people to be more tolerant.” His efforts to promote social justice — including rights for women — and his concern for those in need are still relevant today, he added.

A Young Audience

Children in the audience scurried to sit on the floor in the front of the library’s Community Room to the view the film, which received a positive reception when it was shown at a Mathematical Association of America meeting a year-and-a-half ago. “Maybe there are worlds beyond our world,” suggested Mr. Banchoff to his attentive listeners after the movie. “It’s a challenge to think about a higher realm.”

Copies of both the book and DVD were available for sale at the end of the program. They may also be borrowed from the library.

“Thinking Allowed” continues on April 8 when author Graham Burnett will talk about his new book Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Cenury New York Court Case that Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature.

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