Powerful new biopic tells extraordinary story of Stanisław Ulam – the ‘H-Bomb’ mathematician
A new European film tells the remarkable story of Stanisław Ulam, the Polish-born mathematician who played a major role in the development of the hydrogen bomb in the United States during World War II.
Far from being purely theoretical, his maths skills had a lasting impact on the course of history.
Ulam was born into a wealthy Polish Jewish family in 1909 in Lemberg (Lwów in Polish; now Lviv, Ukraine), which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.
He studied at city’s Polytechnic Institute and became a member of the famous Lwów School of Mathematics in interwar Poland. Over the course of his life, he specialised in subjects including set theory, mathematical logic and thermonuclear reactions.
Invited by Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann, he came to the United States in 1936 to work at Princeton. He spent the next few years, which coincided with the first few years of World War II, working as an academic at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In 1943, his career took a different turn: he became a US citizen and was recruited to work on the development of a new weapon, the nuclear bomb, at the Los Alamos laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Now Ulam is the subject of a new biopic, entitled “Adventures of a Mathematician” in English (the Polish title is “Geniusze”; literally, “geniuses”). A German-Polish-British production, it was written and directed by Berlin-based director Thor Klein.
Ulam is played by actor Philippe Tłokiński (star of The Courier), who was born in France in 1985 and has acted in both there and in Poland. Esther Garrel plays the mathematician’s wife Françoise Aron, who was French.
“It was very intense work. In the story told in the film, there is no scene without the main character. This character really drew me in. I admit that Stanisław Ulam left his mark on me,” said Tłokiński, commenting on his role.
Maths aside, the director tackles tough moral questions relating to nuclear weapons, as Ulam and other scientists are caught between a desire to help their families back in Europe and the destructive power of the weapons they are developing.
Seventy-five years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, this angle remains relevant to this day.
The film was released in the US this month at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.