The Math(ematica) behind Television’s Crime Drama NUMB3RS
May 24, 2007 — Eric Weisstein, Senior Researcher
Viewers of prime-time television are likely quite familiar with police chases, blood-stained bodies, and massive explosions that rock objects of all shapes and sizes (including houses, cars, and buildings). What they may be less familiar with is a protagonist whose job title is “math professor” and who uses crime investigation techniques that delve deeply into mathematical concepts and equations.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what they are likely to find on the CBS Paramount television crime drama NUMB3RS, which airs at 10pm U.S. Eastern on Fridays–and which last week completed its third season on air. NUMB3RS has received widespread acclaim not only from television viewers (who have made it Friday night’s most popular show for three seasons running), but also from mathematicians and professional societies (who hail its positive portrayal of scientists and their use of science and in particular mathematics for the public good).
Even before the show first premiered in January 2005, a group of researchers at Wolfram Research (a team that now includes colleagues Michael Trott, Ed Pegg, Amy Young, and me) has been part of the core group of advisers who assist with all aspects of the the mathematics in the show. Our role runs the gamut from suggesting new ideas to improving detailed mathematical content to preparing formulas, figures, and animations. And, somewhat surprisingly to us, many of our comments and suggestions actually ultimately appear (in some form) on air!
Screen capture from NUMB3RS, which debuted January 23, 2005 on CBS.
NUMB3RS is © 2007 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Note the Mathematica spikey in the lower left corner.
So how do we help NUMB3RS? We improve the mathematics, catch potential inconsistencies, correct arithmetic on occasion, and in general answer a wide variety of questions from the writers, directors, and actors. We research and derive many of the equations and diagrams that appear in the show. We also enrich the show with modern topics in math and science, including some so current that they may have first appeared in research literature as little as a few weeks earlier. Finally, we provide the NUMB3RS props department with T-shirts, posters, and books for the show. In fact, past episodes of the show have sported The Mathematica Book, Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, Michael Trott’s Mathematica GuideBooks, and my own Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics. The keen-eyed viewer may also have noticed the Mathematica-generated Riemann zeta function poster in one episode and a nested triangles T-shirt donned by the arch-villain in another.
A common thread running throughout all of these activities is our extensive use of Mathematica, the powerful computer system for mathematical computation and visualization made by Wolfram Research. Using Mathematica, we are able to provide the NUMB3RS writers and graphic designers with detailed “math packets” containing diagrams, a cornucopia of equations, and now–making use of the recently released Mathematica 6–fully interactive illustrations and demonstrations (for example, the animation of the trawler problem created for the Season 3 episode “Spree, Part 2″).
Mathematica animation of the trawler problem created for NUMB3RS
NUMB3RS remains one of the most popular programs on television, and its co-creators Nick Falacci and Cheryl Heuton have been the recipients of a number of prestigious awards for science communication to a general audience. Most recently, Nick and Cheryl were honored with a Public Service Award from the National Science Board, presented at the U.S. State Department diplomatic reception rooms in Washington, DC on May 14. (Previous recipients of the award have included Alan Alda and Scientific American Frontiers, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Earth & Sky, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and the PBS television series NOVA.)
NSB Public Service Award and plaque presented to Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci
“NUMB3RS is the first television series on which Falacci and Heuton have collaborated. Wisely bringing in several mathematicians as consultants, the producers were able to provide realism to the mathematical theories employed in the crime-solving cases of each episode. Experts say that the various theories and mathematical problems and equations used on the program are easily transferable to equivalent real-world situations. Cryptanalysis, probability theory, game theory, decision theory, principal components analysis, multivariate time series analysis and astrophysics are just some of the many disciplines employed in the series thus far. Working mathematicians of the Mathematical Association of America have recognized the accuracy and validity of the theories and their presentations on the program.”
From left to right, Michael, Ed, Cheryl, me, and Amy at the NSB award reception (click to enlarge)
We’re excited for Nick and Cheryl, as well as the entire NUMB3RS team, cast, and crew. And we were especially thrilled to learn recently that their vision for rational, entertaining, compelling drama based on mathematics and science will continue on into a fourth season. Michael, Ed, Amy, and I look forward to continuing to provide mathematical input to the show with the help of Mathematica. Thanks again, Nick and Cheryl, for providing a human face to mathematical and scientific pursuits, for allowing us to be a small part of your team, and for giving us television worth watching at least one night a week.