Partners in Crime: Math and Prime-Time TV

April 12, 2006


Actor David Krumholtz (left), playing a mathematician on the popular television show NUMB3RS, uses mathematics to help his fictional brother, an FBI agent, solve crimes. Krumholtz described his approach to the role in a session about the show at this year’s AAAS meeting.

Martin Golubitsky

I just returned from the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, where the program included a remarkable two-day track in mathematics. Titled "Beyond Pi: Grand Challenges in the Mathematical Sciences," the track was assembled by Robert Osserman, director of special projects at MSRI, Barbara Keyfitz, chair of AAAS Section A (Math), Warren Page, secretary of Section A, and AMS executive director John Ewing, with the help of many others. The mathematics sessions were mini-symposia on a variety of topics, including the Clay Institute's million-dollar-prize problems, the changing nature of proof (due in part to computers), space mission orbital design and chaos, insect flight, tsunamis, and---in honor of the St. Louis Arch---the mathematics of arches. The technical sessions I attended were excellent (and mostly interdisciplinary), but what I would like to focus on here is a session organized by Tony Chan and Bob Osserman on the CBS TV show NUMB3RS, which is a Friday night hit. The CSI-like show features a mathematician, Charlie, played by David Krumholtz, who uses mathematics to help his brother, an FBI agent, solve crimes.

Participating in the session, which was moderated by Tony Chan, were the show's creators and lead writers, the husband-and-wife pair Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, Krumholtz, and the show's mathematical consultant, Gary Lorden of Caltech. I expected a large turnout and, indeed, the room was filled to overflowing with two hundred or so people.

Chan, dean of physical sciences at UCLA and a member of the SIAM Board of Trustees, was the math consultant for the NUMB3RS pilot. In St. Louis he showed the potential for a new career in the entertainment industry as he led the panel through the story of the show: how the network decided to have the show focus on a mathematician and how, with the help of Lorden, they make the mathematics (prime-time) realistic. Part of the realism includes having Charlie make subtle mistakes and reach the correct solution with the help of his PhD student and others.

"I am very impressed by the creativity of the writers, their audacity in portraying real math concepts in prime-time entertainment without dumbing it down, and their dramatic skill in blending the math into an entertaining crime drama," Chan says. "The fact that it is such a popular show, across the age spectrum, is an encouraging sign that, given the right motivation and setting, the public can be made to appreciate and enjoy math."

Krumholtz spoke of his own mathematics education, recalling that it proceeded in a less than perfect way. But with this role, he said, he has gained an appreciation for mathematics and logical reasoning to the extent that his friends now give him grief for being too logical. Krumholtz also described how he has thrown himself into the role: He memorizes all of the mathematics (and tries to understand the content), rather than reading it in voiceover (the CBS preference)---in an effort to maintain spontaneity. Cheryl Heuton mentioned off stage that they had to audition more than a hundred actors to find one who could play the mathematician role convincingly.

For me, a surprising feature of the 90-minute session was the focus on mathematics education. Although one of the scriptwriters' goals was to focus on the logic of mathematics and the thought processes of a mathematician, their larger purpose was to write an entertaining, successful, prime-time TV show. Having essentially accomplished these goals, they and the actors have become a model for educators looking to get students excited about studying mathematics. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, aware of this possibility early on, formed a partnership with Texas Instruments to use the show to turn high school students on to mathematics.

The NCTM/TI project works as follows. About three weeks before an episode airs, CBS sends a synopsis of the mathematical topics involved to three NCTM teams (writers and reviewers, from both the high school and the university level). How large a part a topic will play is a matter of guesswork, says Karen Longhart, who coordinates the preparation of materials for NCTM; the actual plot is a closely guarded secret. The teams parcel out the themes and then go to work preparing materials for use by igh school teachers (see www.cbs.com/primetime/numb3rs/ti/activities.shtml). An estimated 20,000 teachers have worked the materials into lesson plans, says NCTM president Cathy Seeley, who expresses delight that this "wonderful opportunity" arose during her term.

Asked about shows that have been especially successful in interesting students in mathematics, Longhart names two: In "Bones of Contention" the use of carbon-14 dating to approximate the age of a skull paved the way for materials on exponential functions; the same episode lent itself to an introduction to Voronoi diagrams and their use to pinpoint a location. From "Harvest," about illegal traffic in body parts, the NCTM teams were able to extract three sets of activities---estimating the time of a crime from measurements of ice melting at the scene, on the use of ellipses to track the ocations of criminals, and on Markov chains.

"We heard the program's opening, with the words ‘we all use math every day,' and we were hooked," says Linda Beheler of TI, explaining the company's decision to invest in the project. "This is the basic premise behind TI's efforts to promote the teaching and learning of mathematics and science, and a core message of our business."

"Our goal was to inspire students to learn more about mathematics and the way it impacts their lives. Based on the feedback we're hearing, . . . students are engaged and intrigued because they're able to see math applied to real-world activities."

NUMB3RS helps the entire mathematical sciences community in its ongoing quest to sell mathematics. The cast and writers are engaging people who are interested in helping to make that happen.

***

I would like to end with a note of thanks. Warren Page is stepping down after 18 years as secretary of AAAS Section A. He has worked tirelessly to develop programs like the one offered this year, and he deserves thanks from all of us for his efforts. Ed Aboufadel is the next Section A secretary, and on behalf of SIAM I welcome him to his new position. The arrival of this issue of SIAM News on readers' desks should just about coincide with the deadline for proposing mathematical sessions for the 2007 AAAS meeting. Aboufadel encourages readers who have ideas for 2008 and beyond to contact him (aboufade@gvsu.edu).

Martin Golubitsky, president of SIAM in 2005–06, is the Cullen Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the University of Houston.


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