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The Nerd Oscars: 24 Best Data Science Moments in Movies

You can’t have a gathering of FICO people without things getting kind of nerdy fast.  It’s just part of the company’s DNA, a culture that attracts people who live for mathematics, analytics, simulation, optimization, decision modeling, and decision management. Walk into a conference room, and you’ll hear data scientists talking about hyper-parameter optimization and debating the finer points of traditional gradient descent vs. Newton’s gradient descent. Walk into another, and you’ll catch software developers comparing Waterfall vs. Agile vs. Scrum vs. XP vs. Lean.  Walk into another – the conference room with food and drinks – and you’ll catch marketing people analyzing the TOFU CTR, CR, and CAC on their latest B2B ABM campaign.

So, with the Oscars approaching on April 25, a group of FICO employees were waiting for a Zoom meeting to begin, and talking about 2020 Oscar nominees; of course, the conversation soon shifted to stories about their favorite movies with nerdy, geeky, and propeller-headish themes.

The "Nerd Oscars" were born.  A brief description of each winning film is below, along with publicly-available YouTube video clips of pivotal scenes where analytics, optimization, and raw mathematics give star performances. We should note that term "Oscars" is a registered trademark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; owners of the copyrights for video clips below are provided. Please note that some clips are NSFW, or may express opinions and sentiments not endorsed by FICO.

So without further ado, the winners are...

1. Best Depiction of Iterative Simulation in a Time Loop: Groundhog Day

(Columbia Pictures)

Groundhog Day data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management
Plot Summary Phil Conner is a Pittsburgh TV weatherman on a remote assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, he gets ensnared in a time loop: every morning at 6:00, he is awoken by the same song on his clock radio, repeats the same interactions with the same people, and relives the same recurring events every day. Determined to break the spell, Phil starts making small changes to his daily routine, and learns that each change produces a different outcome… some positive, but mostly hilariously negative, making Groundhog Day a rom-com classic.


Each day, learning from the lessons of previous days, Phil slowly and iteratively learns which behaviors results in disaster, and which produces the most favorable outcomes.  Eventually, he makes it through an entire “optimal” day with no missteps: the time loop is broken, and he returns to the present with his new love interest

Pivotal clips:

The first day: feels like déjà vu

The same day... over and over again

Why we like it: We really enjoy when things go well – or go optimally – for our customers. FICO’s optimization and Centralized Decisioning solutions make simulation, optimization, and analytics easy, even for non-technical users like Phil.  By incrementally improving the accuracy and ROI of strategies with each pass, you’re on your way to smarter, faster, more profitable decisions. And break the spells that are holding your big data projects back. To get started, check out our new "Optimizing Success" program.

2. Best Depiction of Iterative Simulation in a Time Loop While Fighting Invading Aliens: Edge of Tomorrow

(Warner Brothers Pictures)

Edge of Tomorrow data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: Earth has been invaded by aliens called Mimics, and Europe has all but fallen.  A multinational fighting force is fighting valiantly to repel them, but to no avail.  Human losses are enormous, because to date, no one is able to get close enough, long enough to the Mimics to learn of any of their vulnerabilities.

It is later learned that Mimics are prevailing by using time-loops: every time Mimics lose a battle, they reset time back to the previous day, changing their battle tactics to produce a more favorable outcome. This iterative approach induces higher casualties on the humans each time battles are re-fought.

Fortunately, two soldiers, U.S. Major William Cage and Sergeant Rita Vrataski have close encounters with the Mimics, and have assimilated their time loop abilities.  Employing the same time-resetting methods as the aliens, they keep reliving a war of competing measures and counter-measures in a race to out-time loop the enemy. Edge of Tomorrow is a nerd’s thrill ride.

Pivotal clips:

An enemy that controls time

Training like there's no tomorrow

Why we like it: Optimization and data science projects at work are rarely a life-or-death battle. But they can be costly and wasteful if projects don’t achieve the desired ROI or they failed to be deployed at all. FICO’s optimization solutions help to ensure your company’s success by not only helping you get the right answers (not just the almost-right answers) but by building a bridge to promote collaboration and synergy between your technical and business users, ultimately achieving Centralized Decisioning to outthink and outmaneuver the competition.

3. Best Depiction of Arcane Manual Calculations: Hidden Figures

(Chernin Entertainment)

Hidden Figures data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: In 1961, the United States and the Soviet Union are locked in an epic struggle to control outer space. Computer systems are not yet ready for operational use (though the IBM® 7090 is the butt of multiple jabs throughout the movie).

“The Space Race” also becomes NASA’s hunt for the top science, technology, engineering, and mathematics talent in America… which would come to include mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, as well as engineer Mary Jackson. Their work included calculating flight trajectories, introducing mainframes to replace “human computers,” and a wide range of advanced aerodynamic engineering projects.

Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson all distinguished themselves within NASA not just for their STEM contributions… but because they were Black women breaking into almost entirely White, male-dominated fields.  For all of these reasons, Hidden Figures is a most inspiring film.

Pivotal clips:

Genius on display

1760s mathematics solves a space-age problem

Why we like it: We like this movie on a lot of levels. First, it reminds us that FICO has been doing deep, ground-breaking analytics by hand since 1956, when we were founded by engineer Bill Fair and mathematician Earl Isaac.  And we like that it celebrates that great talent comes from a diverse workforce; our commitment to diversity is part of the reason FICO took the top spot on Forbes List of “America’s Best Mid-Sized Employers.”  To join us, check out our job postings here.

4. Best Depiction of Financial Futures Modeling: Margin Call

(Before the Door Pictures)

Margin Call data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: What would you do if you were a risk management expert for a major Wall Street investment bank, and a departed colleague’s risk models warned you that all of your holdings would begin to fatally crash the following day?

We’re not just talking about losses that potentially exceed the market capitalization of your entire company if urgent action isn’t taken… but actually taking down Wall Street, and the entire global economy along with it.

Margin Call is based on the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In the film, volatility levels in mortgage-backed securities are exceeding historical levels. This means that the firm's position in those assets is dangerously overleveraged and a decline in their value large enough to cause the firm's bankruptcy could occur in the near future. The firm has just hours to take bold, immediate steps to save itself… even knowing that its actions will devastate international finance and investing for year to come.

Pivotal clips:

Model behavior isn't always desirable

When business types meet data scientists with bad news

Why we like it: A catastrophic financial meltdown is the sort of scenario FICO’s Decision Modeler and Centralized Decisioning are  designed to alleviate, by helping  to identify and preempt problems long before they occur… and simulate alternative strategies to prevent them.

5. Best Depiction of Financial Credit Defaults Swap Modeling: The Big Short

(Paramount Pictures)

The Big Short data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: Another film based on actual events, The Big Short is set during the build-up to the financial crisis of 2007.

The story begins in 2005, when a contrarian hedge fund manager theorizes  that – because of the widespread popularity  of high-risk subprime loans – the United States’ housing market has become extremely unstable, teetering on near-collapse.

Forecasting that adjustable-rate mortgage interest rates would rise in the second quarter of 2007, and believing that the market's collapse is imminent, the hedge fund manager creates a credit default swap market, allowing him to bet against (or “short”) market-based mortgage-backed securities for profit.

The film is thoroughly entertaining, and does an excellent job explaining financial instruments such as subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, credit ratings, and both asset- and mortgage backed securities.

Pivotal clips:

Predicting disaster, and planning to profit from it

Bagging a $489 million profit

Why we like it: Some say that the devil is in the details; we say, give the devil his due. There are enormous surprises lurking deep in your company’s data, many then of hidden in siloed departmental applications spread across your org chart. The trick is in finding them before they surprise you.  FICO’s Centralized Decisioning solution compels all of those siloed systems to share their secrets with one another, and bring them out into the open – where there is  no place to hide.  Once that enterprise data is exposed, our optimization solutions can help mitigate the damage of threats and capitalize on the opportunities that emerge.

6. Best Depiction of Equilibrium for N- Person Games: A Beautiful Mind

(Universal Pictures)

A Beautiful Mind data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: Geniuses are not wired like the rest of us; and sometimes their wiring can go haywire.  A Beautiful Mind is based on the life of mathematics virtuoso John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and winner of the Abel Prize for mathematics.

What makes Nash’s work so fascinating, and his story so compelling, is that for many years he was an undiagnosed schizophrenic, straddling the line between genius and madness, with random flashes of brilliance in an otherwise normal life.

For example, while at Princeton, he developed a new concept of governing dynamics… while he and his classmates were debating the “optimal” way to approach a group of women at a bar. Later, at the request of The Pentagon, he demonstrates an astounding ability to decipher enemy codes just by looking at them.

The film beautifully illustrates factors that govern chance and decision-making inside complex systems found in everyday life.

Pivotal clips:

Beauty inspires brilliance

An eye for numbers... even cryptographic ones

Why we like it: Nash’s remarkable ability to see “clues” that others cannot and devise one-of-a-kind solutions to vexing problems is an inspiration to us at FICO.  Our work in AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics is at the pinnacle of the decisioning industry… but as smart as we are, we can’t do it in our heads, like Dr. Nash.  For that, we recommend Centralized Decisioning.

7. Best Depiction of Solving an Adjacency Matrix and Cayley's Formula: Good Will Hunting

(Miramax Films)

Good Will Hunting data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: Good Will Hunting is about a young man named Will Hunting, who works as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He is also a gifted mathematician, whose natural gifts for solving some of the world’s most complex mathematic problems far eclipses those of MIT’s top faculty members… including Fields Medal winner Prof.  Gerald Lambeau.

Unfortunately, Will also suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder due to childhood trauma. He is defiant, distrustful, sabotages relationships, and highly anti-authoritarian towards those who are trying to help him.

The film focuses on the tug-of-war between Lambeau, who sees Will as his academic prodigy, and psychologist Dr. Sean Maguire, who is hoping to help Will find peace emotionally… but it is the math scenes that steal the show.  Throughout the film, the world’s top mathematics minds are utterly stymied by the speed with which Will solves unimaginably complex problems.

Pivotal clips:

Meet the world's smartest janitor

Schooling the professors

Why we like it: When it comes to complex problems facing businesses today – say, digital transformation – less than a third get it right, despite spending more than a trillion dollars collectively. Most fail, we think, because they try to throw expensive servers and professional services at the problem, instead of out-smarting it.  We like this movie because the main character uses his natural talents for problem-solving to outwit challenges… just like our Decision Management and optimization solutions do for our customers.

8. Best Depiction of Propensity-Based Theoretical Model Probability: 21

(Sony Pictures)

21 data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: If you like movies with scenes with odd titles such as, “The Monty Hall Problem” and dialogue like “People, remember, if you don't know which door to open, always account for variable change,” this is the movie for you.

21 is a 2008 film based on the 2003 book, “Beat the House,” the true story of the underground MIT Blackjack Team.  It was a group of as many as 80 math-savvy MIT students and ex-students who travelled the world using card counting techniques to beat casinos at blackjack from 1979 until the late 1990s… raking in an estimated $57.6 million before they were barred from casinos.

Casinos have wised up to card counting, and now use up to eight decks shuffled together (up to 416 cards), so you need to be pretty mathematically savvy to do the counting and analytics in your head.  But from a nerdy standpoint, 21 is a fun look into a dangerous, glamourous lifestyle few of us could imagine.

Pivotal clips:

How to win a car, instead of a goat

Handy in a haberdashery

Why we like it: Blackjack is all about odds, probabilities, risks, making the correct mathematical decisions in real-time… just like in banking, insurance, and other industries FICO serves.  We’ve been helping our customers put the odds in their favor for more than 60 years, and today we’re helping them make smarter, faster, more profitable decisions than ever before… while reducing risk and protecting them from fraud and financial crimes.  So when it comes to beating the odds, deal us in.

9. Best Depiction of Analytics to Crack Mechanically-Generated Cyphers: The Imitation Game

(The Weinstein Company)

The Imitation Game data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: It was 1939. Nazi Germany had invaded Poland; France and Britain declared war on Germany, and World War II was underway.  German forces swept through Europe with astonishing speed and powerful, precision attacks known as “blitzkrieg,” or lightning war… waves of synchronized mechanized infantry, high-speed airstrikes, and “wolfpacks” of submarines all striking in coordinated fashion.

Blitzkrieg was made possible by using radio to orchestrate armaments and troop movements in real-time… but more importantly, a new cypher device called “Enigma,” which could generate some 150 trillion (150 million million) possible code combinations for transmitting top secret German messages.

The Imitation Game is about British cryptanalyst Alan Turing, widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, and his efforts to decipher Enigma messages; he turned the tide of the war… and by some estimates, ended it two years sooner and saved 14 million lives.

Pivotal clips:

The flash brilliance that helped to win WWII

Sometimes, information is too valuable to act upon

Why we like it: Like Turning, we like solving difficult problems… the more difficult, the better.  His decryption efforts succeeded because he was able to aggregate information from a wide range of varied sources – like our Centralized Decisioning solution does – and draw intelligent solutions that would be impossible to glean otherwise.  We’re not saying FICO technology is saving the world… but we have helped many companies save a lot of time and money in their decision efforts.  And we probably saved a few careers in the process.

10. Best Depiction of the Importance Targeted Queries to Glean Useful Insights; Phenomenon

(Buena Vista Pictures)

Phenomenon data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: George Malley is an auto mechanic who, by virtue of an encounter with an extraterrestrial force, is endowed with off-the-charts intelligence and psychokinetic powers.

Overnight, he finds that he easily assimilates vast amounts of information – reading multiple books every night, as he no longer needs sleep – can learn foreign languages on-the-fly, crack codes for the military, and even predict earthquakes.

His deep intellect empowers him to formulate new, revolutionary insights that appears to have a force-multiplying effect: the more he learns, more advanced his ideas become… and thus, the more difficult it becomes for researchers to understand to magnitude of his newfound intelligence and powers: he is simply operating at a speed and a level they cannot comprehend because they lack the breadth of his aggregated knowledge on a broad range of fields, helping Phenomenon showcase some phenomenal STEM scenes.

Pivotal clips:

How better questions result in better answers

A thirst for knowledge that can't be quenched

Why we like it: At FICO, we like voracious learners. And the more we learn, the deeper we can go  into specialized domain areas using our AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics capabilities.  Because of the ever more valuable insights gleaned by our Centralized Decisioning solution, no one can touch FICO’s ability to help companies make smarter, faster, more profitable decisions than their competitors can hope to keep up with.

11. Best Depiction of Frequency-Based Probability for Cost-Benefit Analysis: Moneyball

(Columbia Pictures)

Moneyball data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: The first professional baseball team was founded in 1869 and in 150+ years since, very little about the game on the field has changed… but everything outside the lines has changed immensely, particularly the economics of the fielding a team.

In the modern game, “Small Market Teams,” those who play in less-populated cities and thus have a smaller economic pool to support them, are gutted every year, their best players often lured away by lucrative contracts from “Large Market Teams.”

In 2002, the Oakland Athletics conducted a bold experiment: assembling a completely data-driven team: no stars, just underappreciated players with exceptional statistical promise.

Did it work? The 2020 Athletics had the best efficiency in baseball with 103 wins (tied for most in the league) at a cost of $0.388M per win; conversely, the Texas Rangers had 73 wins at a cost of $1.468M per win.  That’s an efficiency ratio of all-star proportions.

Pivotal clip:

Science vs. Scouts

Fastballs and frequency-based probabilities

Why we like it: Removing bias, intuition, and “gut feel” from decisions – relying on the data to make smarter, faster, more profitable decisions than the competition – is what FICO lives for.  For example, this year, the Los Angeles Dodgers have a payroll of $247 million, larger than the bottom five teams combined (whose average payroll is just over $50 million.) We can’t help our customers outspend their competitors; but no one is better at helping to outsmart them, with our solutions like Centralized Decisioning.

12. Best Depiction of Data Integrity in Forecasting: Trading Places

(Paramount Pictures)

Trading Places data modeling, analytics, simulation, optimization, and decision management

Plot Summary: Louis Winthorpe III, managing director of Duke & Duke Commodities Brokers, and a ne'er-do-well street hustler named Billy Ray Valentine would have no cause to ever meet; they run in totally different circles in in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

But brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke, the wealthy and unscrupulous owners Duke & Duke, use their financial means to juxtapose Louis’ and Billy Ray’s lives as part of a Machiavellian experiment to prove whether nature-versus-nurture – or in this case, erudition and education versus spunk and street-smarts – is the better determinant of personal success.

The Dukes effectively ruin Louis’ career, reputation, and social standing, while giving Billy Ray the rich and famous lifestyle that Louis once enjoyed. But after a chance meeting and learning that they’d been manipulated by the Duke Brothers, Louis and Bill Ray set out to get their revenge; they devise an ingenious plan to hit them where it will hurt most: in their wallets.

Pivotal clips:

Commodity-trading basics (really basic)

When good data goes bad

Why we like it:  We don’t want to spoil the ending (even though you’ve had almost 40 years to watch it) but suffice it to say, very, very bad things happen when you have 100% confidence in your data, bet your company on it, and it turns out to be wrong. Conversely, very, very good things can happen when you possess information that’s richer, timely, and more accurate than the competition. FICO Optimization and Centralized Decisioning customers put the data on their side; they stay ahead of the competition by using analytics, simulation, and optimization to ensure the highest possible ROI on their customer-facing strategies.

That's our list - what are your favorite data science moments in movies? Post yours in the comments!

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