Web edition: January 27, 2006
Lately, more than 12 million people have been tuning in every Friday night to see the latest episode of the CBS TV series "Numb3rs." The show debuted a year ago and now regularly ranks in the top third of all TV programs in the weekly ratings.
That's quite a triumph for a crime series that features a mathematician as its superhero, incorporates genuine mathematical vocabulary, and displays the varied trappings of a mathematical life.
There's also an educational component. Each Monday before a new episode airs, math teachers can obtain question and activity sheets based on mathematical ideas featured in the upcoming episode of "Numb3rs" (see http://www.cbs.com/primetime/numb3rs/ti/activities.shtml).
One recent episode, "Double Down," for instance, dealt with the casino card game blackjack and an analysis of the process used by a mechanical card shuffler to deal cards in random order. Accompanying activity sheets covered random sequences, blackjack probabilities, perfect shuffles, and time series analysis.
The educational component is the result of a partnership involving Texas Instruments, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, CBS, and Paramount. For each show, three writing teams receive a brief synopsis of where math is being used in an upcoming episode. The teams then have about 2 weeks to prepare question sheets suitable for high school students.
It's not always easy to come up with something, says Johnny Lott of the University of Montana, who leads one of the teams. And the deadlines are very tight.
Series writers get input from mathematicians, including Gary Lorden of Caltech and Ed Pegg Jr. of Wolfram Research (see http://www.maa.org/editorial/mathgames/mathgames_01_21_05.html), who provide ideas and check early drafts. Many of the cases portrayed on the show have a basis in real life.
The "Double Down" episode, for instance, had echoes of a situation in which six students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won large amounts playing blackjack by using a system based on teamwork and card counting. This escapade is the subject of Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House. Mezrich and several of the students portrayed in the book made cameo appearances in the "Numb3rs" episode.
Similarly, the potential for flaws in card shuffling by machines was pointed out several years ago by Stanford statisticians Persi Diaconis and Susan Holmes (see "Card Shuffling Shenanigans" at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20021116/mathtrek.asp).
The series aims for mathematical correctness and scientific accuracy, says Andrew Black, who is a researcher and writer for the show. Black described his role at a session on "Numb3rs" at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, held earlier this month in San Antonio, Texas.
It's takes about 2 months to go from idea to final script, Black says.
Among Black's responsibilities is the preparation of the math synopsis for each episode that goes to the teacher writing teams. He even sometimes distributes math packets to the actors, providing little tutorials about some of the math concepts at the heart of certain episodes. The actors, however, may not always read them, Black admits.
Nonetheless, the actors are becoming more comfortable with the mathematical underpinnings of their show. David Krumholtz, who stars as supermathematician Charlie Eppes, for example, now writes mathematical equations on the blackboard himself. He no longer needs a stand-in or "hand double" to do the job for him.
"Numb3rs" was created by Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci. "I'd been reading for years about scientists and mathematicians," Heuton recounted in an interview last year in Wired. "The way they thinkI find it intriguing and amusing and enlightening."
"One of the inspirations for this show was Bill Nye the Science Guy," Heuton added. "He talks a lot about inspiring young people to study math and science. . . . I wanted to influence people to think more about math as an everyday language that they can use." Nye himself recently made a guest appearance on the show.
The result is a crime show in which math generally plays a fundamental role in solving the crime. Instead of talk of DNA and mass spectrometers, we have glimpses of fractals and primes.
Indeed, one program, titled "Prime Suspect," intertwined prime numbers, factoring, cryptography, and the Riemann hypothesis!
Math aficionados (and experts) have noticed, providing commentaries and critiques of the programs as they air. The math department at Northeastern University, for example, offers a regularly updated "Numb3rs" blog (see http://www.atsweb.neu.edu/math/cp/blog/), which provides background information on topics such as face recognition, blackjack systems, Poisson distributions, and more.
In a comment posted to a Geomblog discussion of an episode last year titled "Sabotage," series co-creator Falacci noted, "Our goal first and foremost is to intrigue and tantalize the non-math people out there in TV land. We want people who've never given mathematics a second thought to stop and consider the role that math plays in society and day-to-day life."
He continued, "For the mathematicians out there, we want to be as engaging and accurate as possiblewhile being able to create the type of show that WILL attract a sizeable audience that will keep us on the air and continue introducing mathematical and scientific concepts to [the] general population." For the full discussion, see http://geomblog.blogspot.com/2005/02/numb3rs-review-sabotage.html.
It looks like it's working so far.