18 Jan 1998

The story of Sneakers, the movie and Len

Adleman the mathematician is as follows:

Larry Lasker was one of the writers of the

1983 hit movie War Games. Based on that

success, he started to produce his own

movies. While looking for a new project, he

called me at USC and we arranged to meet.

He was considering making a movie based

on cryptography. While we spoke he

mentioned that he was also considering a

movie based on a new treatment for

Parkinson's disease. Patients who had been

"frozen" for many years would wake-up

under treatment - sort of a Rip Van Winkle

thing. I said that that sure seemed a lot

more interesting than crypto - and he

disappeared. The next time I heard of him

was in 1990 when his movie Awakenings,

starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro,


A short while later, Larry again made

contact. This time he was well on his way

to making Sneakers, starring Robert

Redford, Sidney Poitier, Mary McDonnell,

Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix. He told me

that there would be a scene wherein a

researcher would lecture on his

mathematical work regarding a

breakthrough in factoring - and hence in

cryptography. Larry asked if I would prepare

the slides and words for that scene. I liked

Larry and his desire for verisimilitude, so I

agreed. Larry offered money, but I

countered with Robert Redford - I would do

the scene if my wife Lori could meet


I worked hard on the scene. The "number

field sieve," (the fastest factoring algorithm

currently known) is mentioned along with a

fantasy about towers of number fields and

Artin maps. I was tempted to name the new

breakthrough the "function field sieve" --

since I was actually working on a paper at

the time which would later appear with that

title - but I decided against it, for reasons

that escape me now.

I made beautiful slides on my Mac. This

took a great deal of time (graphics

programs were not as user friendly as they

are now) but I wanted the stuff to look

impressive. As it turns out, Larry had them

redrawn by hand by some guy on his crew -

he said that hand drawn slides looked more

realistic. Of course he was right - but I

could have saved a lot computer time had I

known in the first place.

The lecture scene was actually shot at a

small college in LA. Larry told me that

some physics professor there saw the

slides and said that they did not show math

at all. He offered to redraw them for a small

fee - Larry declined.

Lori and I were there when the scene was

shot. I was most pleased with my phrase "a

breakthrough of Gaussian proportions," --

the Prince of Mathematics could use a plug

in a major motion picture. We were

introduced to Redford and chatted with him

for about five minutes - that is Bob and I

chatted - Lori said hello and then apparently

was too star struck to add more.

I was given credit at the end of the movie

as (in my recollection) "mathematical

consultant." Anyway the Academy

snubbed me - since apparently the

mathematical consultant Oscar for that

year went to someone else.