PASADENA, Calif. There's something kind of surprising about the Caltech team whose members serve as math consultants to CBS' new crime drama Numb3rs. The mathematicians look as much like the cast of a hip new TV series as the actors do.
There's Gary Lordon, the avuncular head of the math department at the California Institute of Technology.
Add Dinakar Ramakrishnan, the voluble Indian who does numbers theory; Hobbit-like Rick Wilson, the combinatorics guy; and hip Nathan Dunfield, a topologist, and you don't need to call central casting.
Top it off with two brilliant—and attractive—graduate students, and who needs Hollywood? Especially when they're the intense David Grynkiewicz and Jennifer Johnson, a chemist turned mathematician.
All of which goes to show that math is a heck of a lot hipper than most people remember from their high school algebra days. And that's just what its science-loving creators want.
But the husband-and-wife team of Nick Falacci and Cheryl Heuton have a fairly non-Hollywood agenda for their show—nothing less than a fight against the forces of anti-intellectualism in America. Their weapon: mathematics.
Mathematics is tremendously powerful in ways most people would never expect, Falacci says. Heuton hopes the show will demystify this subject so many find daunting.
Numb3rs airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. It stars an FBI agent named Don Eppes, who recruits his math genius brother Charlie to help solve crimes. Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure) plays Don. Charlie is played by David Krumholtz (The Trouble With Normal).
Heuton and Falacci want to entertain and educate. That is why, in the first episode, Charlie chides his brother's boss for buying a lottery ticket.
"The odds of this being a winning ticket are about 1 in 41 million. Which means if you bought 20 tickets every week, you'd win the jackpot once every 40,000 years," he tells him.
In a later show they want to unmask a psychic by showing how educated guesses based on standard probability are used to fleece customers.
The show employs clever asides and computer graphics to explain Charlie's intuitive leaps. How else to convey to a TV audience the concept of inverse modeling, which looks at where things end up to figure out their origin?
Charlie is a professor at a Caltech look-alike, and Lordon's expertise was sought first. He then pulled together his colleagues as a consulting team.
It doesn't take much topology (the mathematical manipulation of shapes) to get from there to Grynkiewicz, normally a combinatorics Ph.D. candidate. He can now add a new line in his curriculum vitae: a television credit as a hand-double for Krumholtz.
The producers needed someone for the close-up shots when Charlie is supposed to be writing out long equations on a blackboard. But Krumholtz wasn't up to doing them with the staccato rapidity of a true mathematician. (Since then, Krumholtz says, he has installed a blackboard in his home and practices every night so he can do his own board work.)
The producers first called Lordon. "They said, 'We can't use your hands. Do you have someone with younger hands?' " he recalls. That was Grynkiewicz's cue to literally lend a hand.
(Combinatorics, by the way, is the mathematical study of combinations.)
The show's creators demand that all the mathematics be real and relevant to the situation at hand, something that's not always the case when math hits the big screen.
Mathematicians have long memories when it comes to slights against their profession. Ramakrishnan winces when he recalls Good Will Hunting, a 1997 film in which Matt Damon plays a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has a gift for math.
It was hard to watch, because the stuff on the blackboard didn't make any sense mathematically, or it was about something entirely different," Ramakrishnan says.
Math isn't just important; it's vital to the everyday functioning of society, Falacci and Heuton say. And yet it's cool to talk about how we don't understand it. That infuriates the couple.
"People would never say, 'Yeah, boy, I can't read at all, reading is so hard.' They'd be horribly embarrassed if they couldn't read. But they're actually proud of being innumerate," Falacci says.
Says Heuton: "We just want people to better understand the world they live in."
Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, says that though she considers Numb3rs too violent for high schoolers, she likes that mathematicians aren't shown as "fuzzy-headed, gray-haired professors stuck in a university."
And the show illustrates that math is everywhere, Caltech's Lordon says. It's Wall Street, government agencies, Microsoft. Most of what goes on in the Internet, the way Google works, is applied mathematics."
If just one 14-year-old realizes that following a love for mathematics can lead to totally cool, intellectually fascinating work, Lordon says he'll be pleased. Even the smartest kids ask, 'But what do you do?' "
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