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Do They Have Your Numb3r?


Kendrick Frazier

Volume 31.1, January / February 2007

CBS’s popular Friday night drama uses—surprise!—mathematics, reason, and rationality to help the FBI solve major crime mysteries. This is network television?

What television series would you guess discussed and demonstrated these mathematical concepts this past year? Nova? Scientific American Frontiers? A documentary on the Discovery Channel?

No, these mathematical techniques were integral to the prime-time dramatic television series Numb3rs, which began its third season September 22 on CBS.

Just as the trio of CSI dramatic programs has brought the importance of forensic science to the masses in the U.S. and abroad (SI May/June 2005; CBS says CSI: Miami is now the most watched television show in the world), Numb3rs is now demonstrating to millions of viewers each Friday night that mathematics can also have surprising relevance to everyday problems. And all the while providing quality entertainment.

Mathematics is not just a sideshow in the popular television mystery series, which stars David Krumholtz as brilliant young mathematician Charlie Epps, who helps his FBI agent brother Don (Rob Morrow) tackle particularly puzzling cases. More often than not, it is Charlie, seeking mathematical patterns and applying novel mathematical concepts, who plays a central role solving the cases. Judd Hirsch plays Charlie’s and Don’s widowed father, a semi-retired city planner. The quirky Peter MacNicol also stars as Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, Charlie’s physicist mentor and sounding board for new ideas and broader scientific thinking. Navi Rawat plays a former graduate student of Charlie’s from CalSci (a close stand-in for Caltech) and as a bright and attractive woman provides some continuing love interest.

Science, reason, and rational thinking play such a prominent role in the stories that the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted an entire afternoon symposium at its 2006 annual meeting on the program’s role in changing the public’s perception of mathematics. Nobel laureate David Baltimore, the president of CalTech, took part, and I counted two other Nobel laureates in the audience.

And this past spring, Numb3rs co-creators and executive producers, Cheryl Heuton and Nicolas Falacci, a husband-and-wife team, were honored with the Carl Sagan Award for the Public Understanding of Science. The award was presented by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, honoring those who have become concurrently accomplished as researchers, educators, and magnifiers of the public’s understanding of science.

“What I especially appreciate about Numb3rs,” CSICOP Fellow and Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos told the Skeptical Inquirer, “is that more often than not the math is somewhat integral to the show, and isn’t just decorative. Also there’s little irrelevant and intimidating dialogue like, ‘Ah yes, that’s a locally compact Hausdorf space we have here.’” Paulos is author of Innumeracy and other books championing better understanding of mathematics and a recipient of the 2003 AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

How did a show incorporating mathematics as a key component ever get sold to hard-nosed, cynical Hollywood producers?

First of all, points out Heuton, “CBS is not in the business of teaching math. CBS is in the business of reaching viewers.” She acknowledges that the wild success of the three CSI (crime scene investigations) series produced for CBS by Jerry Bruckheimer helped pave the way for the idea. “We were interested in a show featuring mathematics,” she says, “and we knew we would have to put it into a format that would appeal to the execs—a crime show.”

“We were sure it was going to be a very hard sell,” she says. A twenty-minute “pitch” meeting was set up. Five minutes into the pitch the answer came: “Let’s go ahead” (with a pilot). “That each step went so well remains to Nick and me completely shocking,” she says.

From the beginning, mathematics was to be featured, not downplayed. Episodes begin with a spoken tribute about the importance of mathematics: “We all use math everywhere. To tell time, to predict the weather, to handle money. . . . Math is more than formulas and equations. Math is more than numbers. It is logic. It is rationality. It is using your mind to solve the biggest mysteries we know.”

When was the last time you heard characters in a prime-time television series tout mathematics and rationality? Let alone really using the mind?

Heuton says in an early test, twelve women who watched the show were asked why. “They said, ‘We love the math.’ The head of Paramount TV turned to me and said, ‘I’m flabbergasted.’”

Some previous movies and shows have included mathematics, notes Tony F. Chan, as of October 1 the assistant director for mathematics and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation. (At the time of the AAAS symposium, which he moderated, Chan was dean of the Division of Physical Sciences and former chairman of the Mathematics Depart¬ment at the University of California at Los Angeles.) He mentions Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, and Straw Dogs. But, he says, “Numb3rs is mathematics.”

When Numb3rs premiered January 25, 2005, it had 25,000,000 viewers. It is still one of the two most watched shows on Friday nights. Although it had somewhat higher ratings earlier, its 2006—2007 season opener drew 11,400,000 viewers, good enough for a ranking of 32nd among all shows on television.

Gary Lorden, chairman of the department of mathematics at Caltech, serves as the program’s math consultant. The show recruited him in 2004. “I come up with math ideas, techniques,” he says. He produces pages of papers. The equations that fill the blackboard (or, more often, transparent plastic for more dramatic display) when Charlie extemporizes are real. “All that stuff on the blackboard is real mathematics,” he says.

Lorden says Charlie’s character is loosely based on Richard Feynman. “He’s really smart, creative. Give him a problem and let him go.” And he notes, sometimes Charlie’s wrong. “Just as in math.”

David Krumholtz, the actor who plays Charlie, is certainly one of the key reasons for the show’s appeal. With long hair, dark, expressive eyes, and an ability to convey simultaneously an intense passion for mathematics and a kind of endearing vulnerability, he’s an attractive character. He is self-deprecating about his character’s combination of awkward intelligence and good looks. “Charlie’s a ‘geek/sheik, a smart/throb,’” he laughs. And although he is definitely not a mathematician (“I flunked algebra I twice”), Krumholtz says he has quickly become a fan not only of the value of math “but of reason and rationality.”

“Once you understand the Fibonacci sequence,” which played a central role in one episode, “you can’t get past that without becoming a different person,” he says. “I’ve become a deductive reasoner. I try to embody the character as best I can. I spend a lot of time at Caltech, wandering around, going into some of the classes. I listened to some [recordings of] Feynman lectures.”

He says he passionately believes in the message Charlie speaks in one episode: “Math is the real world. It’s everywhere. Math is nature’s language. It is nature’s way of communicating with us. . . . Applying this stuff to real-life applications is very powerful.”

Every show features a turning point where Charlie explains a mathematical idea, and here the show’s visual effects department stepped up from the beginning. The graphics are visually stunning, and often very creative in simply explaining a difficult concept.

“We visualize the math,” Krumholtz says. “When we cut away to these visuals, it’s not vacuum. I do it in real time. It gives it spontaneity.”

“The visuals are indeed key,” says co-creator Nick Falacci. “First the episodes have to be written. Then we look for visual metaphors. Then we have a team of special effects people try to make it as simple and direct as possible. I knew that people wouldn’t try to solve the equations, but I knew that if people could understand the basic concepts behind the math, it really could be very exciting.”

CBS was pleased with the first visual sequence but suggested it could be recycled for each episode. Says Falacci: “We had to tell CBS, just as every math concept is different, so every metaphor is different.”

Even though the show is a drama, Caltech’s Lorden says he thinks it serves as a model for how “educational TV” could have been, or perhaps still might be.

Heuton, a television pro and a realist, cautions, however: “Numb3rs was designed to be a prime-time network show. Numb3rs was not designed to be an educational show.” And she’s right. It is, it should be remembered, a crime drama. As such it has numerous side plots involving human interactions of its many characters (I especially like the family interactions among Charlie, Don, and their father) and its fair share of intense moments, chases, violence, shootings, explosions, and other expected fare of the genre. Nevertheless, the repeated emphasis and use of mathematical thinking as a core plot element is, well, unique.

Is the university in Numb3rs really Caltech? Very close. “I was a supporter of its being Caltech, not CalSci,” says Caltech president David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate in medicine. But Caltech’s lawyers felt otherwise. “We [Caltech] are very strong supporters of this show. We are proud of Gary’s involvement, and we have opened the campus to the show. Anything that says math and science is important is worth supporting.”

Numb3rs co-creator Nick Falacci, NSF/UCLA mathematician Tony Chan, Numb3rs star David Krumholtz, co-creator Cheryl Heuton, Caltech math chairman Gary Lorden, and Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) at AAAS session devoted to Numb3rs’ contribution to improving the public’s perception of mathematics. Photo by Kendrick Frazier.

Numb3rs co-creator Nick Falacci, NSF/UCLA mathematician Tony Chan, Numb3rs star David Krumholtz, co-creator Cheryl Heuton, Caltech math chairman Gary Lorden, and Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) at AAAS session devoted to Numb3rs’ contribution to improving the public’s perception of mathematics. Photo by Kendrick Frazier.

Television science popularizer and CSI Fellow Bill Nye (“Bill Nye the Science Guy”) is also a supporter. He even appeared in one episode last season, as a combustion researcher. “What’s impressive to me,” he said at the AAAS session, “is how passionate these people are. It’s been fun to hang around with these guys.”

Krumholtz says he feels fortunate to be involved in Numb3rs. “I am the major receptacle of gratitude for the show because I’m its public face,” he says. “It is really inspiring to be the beacon for that. I’m glad that they have allowed me to do this show. I want him [Charlie] to be as believable as possible.”

The show has changed him, he says. “In general I am a more logical thinker. My friends hate this. . . . I love it. I used to hate math. I felt stupid, inept. Now I feel I’m more whole. If there’s one kid out there that Numb3rs helps to feel not stupid, inept, then that’s a wonderful thing to do. My dream is that thirty to forty years down the line I might meet someone who says, ‘I won the Nobel Prize because I watched you in Numb3rs.’”

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.