A MATHEMATICIAN LOOKS AT "NUMB3RS," THE TV SHOW

     As an Industrial Mathematician, I have been asked more than a few times what I think of the new television show "NUMB3RS" with the k-u-t-e idea of having a three instead of the letter E. The premise of the show is a mathematician helping the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) solve crimes by providing answers to complex questions. So I'm the logical one to ask about it.

     Several people have said there is no such thing as bad publicity. Even a negative, scathing review of a Broadway play in The New York Times sells more tickets than no review. As a runner myself, I feel the same way about seeing track meets on TV: even bad coverage of the sport gives it some attention, which is better than being ignored.

     On the other hand, once we're going to have a television show that glorifies what I do for a living, I wish its writers had a little more sense of what goes into it. I feel Hollywood's magic is trivializing my own magic.

THE TV SHOW

     From the http://www.numb3rs.org web site:
"Rob Morrow stars as FBI agent Don Eppes, who recruits his mathematical genius brother, Charlie (David Krumholtz), to help the Bureau solve a wide range of challenging crimes in Los Angeles. From two very different perspectives, the brothers take on the most confounding criminal cases, aided by Don's partner, Terry Lake (Sabrina Lloyd), and new FBI recruit David Sinclair (Alimi Ballard). Although their father, Alan (Judd Hirsch), is pleased to see his sons working together, he fears their competitive nature will lead to trouble. Charlie's colleague, physicist Dr. Larry Fleinhardt (Peter MacNicol), urges Charlie to focus more on his university studies than on FBI business. Inspired by actual events, NUMB3RS depicts how the confluence of police work and mathematics provides unexpected revelations and answers to the most perplexing criminal questions."

     When he's not pursuing his side hobby of solving crimes that stumped the FBI's own analysts, super-young prodigy professor Charlie Eppes is working with colleague Dr. Larry Fleinhardt on an "eleven-dimensional supergravity theory" that could redefine the cosmos. The academic and practical demands on Charlie's time form an important plot element in the show.

     When Charlie is involved in an FBI case, he becomes absorbed, even obsessed, and his right hand [1] is seen speedily writing equations with lots of summations, Greek letters, and subscripted variables. When they're skeptical, he reminds his FBI friends that "Everything is numbers." [2]

     His FBI buddies sell Charlie to their superiors by calling him a "world-class" mathematician, a term I expect to hear about athletes rather than academicians. Charlie is not shy about asserting the relevance of his work in everyday life. [3] When asked "Are you telling me you can tell where [the criminal] lives?" Charlie immediately answers "Yeah" with no shortage of confidence.

     "NUMB3RS" is good, basic television drama with likable family characters with good humor [4] and believable emotional reactions to their stressful jobs.

REALITY

     The gap between the academic professor type working on "eleven-dimensional supergravity theory" and solving problems in real life is a bit larger than Hollywood would have us believe. It's more than a lack of relevant knowledge of the other side that keeps academics and practitioners apart, there is a philosophical gap as well. I chose sides on this issue three decades ago and I don't regret my choice. I like solving problems and I savor turning unstructured and poorly-understood business problems into mathematically coherent (maybe even "elegant") solutions.

     The gap between the introduction of a problem (criminal or business) and its solution is bridged only by time, effort, and cooperation. Maybe Charlie can grab an FBI file, go into a one-man huddle at the blackboard [5], but I have to work for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years in a community of people with the common goal of solving a problem to get the quality of solutions I do.

     The process of solving a hard technical problem almost always involves processing a lot of information. In almost every case, this entails processing data using a computer [6], and writing computer programs is seldom quick and easy. I wish I could just hop into the fray of a hard problem without acquiring expertise from the experienced people, but it just doesn't work that way.

     Apparently Charlie is comfortable with computers since his solutions have elegant, even slick, computer graphics. Those have to come from some kind of software and, last time I looked, Microsoft Windows doesn't come with a crime solving package along with its Office suite.

MY CREDENTIALS

     While there are lots of clichés about opinions, everybody 's got one, et cetera., mine might count a bit more than most on this one. Except for my choice of private sector over government, I'm probably as close as flesh and blood comes to the mathematician portrayed on "NUMB3RS."

     Like Charlie, I have "the knack" for mathematics. I'm as quick and smart at seeing connections between things that are often hard for others to see even with explanation. Three decades of decay and decline since my prime still leave me able to hear a problem and, with almost no hesitation, to outline a solution approach. Even if I don't have immediate answers, I'll usually ask penetrating and insightful questions right away. (Nobody has ever accused me of modesty.)

     Like Charlie, I have worked on a variety of problems, mostly with non-mathematicians. In my case, the problems have been industrial rather than criminological [7], telephony, radio analysis, airlines, railroads, used car sales, image processing, printed circuit board design and manufacture, and retail sales. (I look at my résumé and realize I really have done all that stuff. As I said above, I have never been accused me of modesty.)

     Like Charlie, I have explained mathematical issues to non-mathematicians, often with complex graphics to rival Charlie's slick color displays. My explanations also have had to overcome resistance and "math anxiety" in people who are empowered to end my pet projects. I have solved many kinds of problems in many industries during my twenty-three professional years. Unlike Charlie's success stories, mine have come from months, sometimes years, of hard work learning the inner workings of and gathering data about complex systems.

     Finally, I, too, have a deep, lifelong love of mathematics. I, too, believe that almost any problem we face, industrial, economic, or political, can be better solved with a clear, logical, mathematical understanding of its details. If that is the message that "NUMB3RS" viewers come away with, then the show is a success so far as I'm concerned (optimist, glass half full). Viewers could come away with the notion that mathematicians are magicians who can solve just about anything with a few equations and don't do so because they're anti-social geeks (pessimist, glass half empty). Maybe one television show just doesn't matter that much (engineer, too much glass).

_

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NOTES

     1. Although I'm not one of them, there are right-handed mathematicians. In fact, my experience from the brightest groups I have worked with in high school, college, graduate school, Bell Telephone Laboratories, and a few other places is that smart people are almost evenly divided, half-and-half, between left-handed and right-handed.

     2. "Everything is numbers" is a horrible oversimplification of mathematics. I often cover a whiteboard with equations and often peruse a page of numbers from a computer to verify my program's correct behavior, but it is the visualization and understanding of abstract relationships that make mathematics interesting.

     3. A nice scene has a skeptical FBI manager pooh-pooh-ing the relevance of Charlie's mathematical insights. "It's a lot smarter than this," says Charlie pulling a lottery ticket out of the manager's pocket. To counter the maxim "you have to play to win" he gives a brief discussion of the stupidity of buying lottery tickets. Good for him!

     4. As an example of humor around mathematics, there is a cute scene of the father Alan and non-math brother Don watching a baseball game. One says, "He hasn't had a hit in a while, he's due," and describes what kind of hit he's going to get. Charlie grimaces and says it's nonsense that probabilities make something more likely because it's due. Of course the batter does exactly what they predict because Alan and Don saw the same game earlier, it's a replay of yesterday's game.

     5. I have to chuckle when Charlie's response to stress, either a time crunch or a wrong answer, is to write equations frantically at a blackboard. I have similar issues which I resolve by thinking about the problem, writing down first principles, discussing these principles with other members of my team, and examining each assumption and each step of the logical flow. The complex equations are reserved for the later stages of analysis.

     6. The need for intense, pointed computation and data analysis to solve hard problems is one of the reasons I lament the departure of traditional, problem-solving-oriented computer programming from twenty-first century engineering education. (Maybe Problem Solving Oriented should be a new acronym, PSO.)

     7. How is "criminological" for a made-up word?

     8. There is no note 8.