Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

Wolfram Research Goes to Hollywood

Every Friday night at 10pm US Eastern Time, around 12 million people tune in to CBS and watch a hit television show called NUMB3RS. It’s the most popular CBS drama on Friday nights. NUMB3RS tracks the crime-solving exploits of an FBI team assisted by a brilliant mathematics professor.

The show is about how to use math to solve crimes.

If you add up all the bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees awarded in mathematics in a given US academic year, there are only around 20 thousand. And presumably, not every single one of them watches this show.

So why are 12 million people tuning in on a regular basis to watch a show about math?

Because this show makes math—especially cutting-edge higher mathematics—interesting in a way that no popular television show has done before, much as another show on CBS—CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—led the way in making science both accessible and entertaining to the mass television market.

NUMB3RS is therefore the first successful television drama to make advanced mathematics accessible, interesting and entertaining in a dramatic format.

So how did that happen? Where does the TV math come from?

From the behind-the-scenes brain trust at Wolfram Research.

Amy Young, Michael Trott, Eric Weisstein, and Ed Pegg Jr

For the last four seasons, Wolfram Research staff members Michael Trott, Eric Weisstein, Ed Pegg Jr and Amy Young have been the technical consultants for NUMB3RS. They’re the people who bring in the high-order, real-world mathematics used to solve the crimes that come up in the show. Some recent examples include the set covering deployment problem (to optimize positioning of police units) and the illumination problem (to determine where a fugitive has fled).

“We review the scripts to make sure the math used is what a real mathematician would use,” said Eric Weisstein. “We feed the writers ideas.”

And this isn’t your high school (or even university) math; the mathematics and the concepts used in the show are often cutting-edge advances put forth by the top mathematicians here at Wolfram Research.

During the first season of NUMB3RS, the CBS research department asked for help, and we responded. While there were other math consultants early on, that first casual consultation evolved over the following seasons into a significant involvement with every script for every episode. Wolfram Research is now the official mathematics consultant for the show.

In addition to technical consultation for the writers and coaching for the actors, Wolfram Research helps dress the set. Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science book, posters and graphics generated in Mathematica and three-dimensional Mathematica sculptures are in almost every episode—primarily in Charlie’s office. (Charlie is the genius math professor character played by actor David Krumholtz.)

Until this season, the Wolfram Research contribution to the show’s success was very much behind the scenes. An opportunity to showcase our work came up in the promotion efforts for the upcoming fourth-season premiere. CBS pulled out the stops and brought in NUMB3RS executive producer (and famed big-screen director) Tony Scott to partner with actor Val Kilmer (who worked with Scott in a little movie called Top Gun) for the season premiere, “Trust Metric.”

Big director. Big actor. Big script. Big promotion effort.

And for us, an opportunity to show what Wolfram can do in a co-promotion with one of the world’s biggest media companies.

As part of the co-promotional effort, the Wolfram NUMB3RS Brain Trust teamed up with our design department to create an amazing website: “The Math behind NUMB3RS.”

The site is prominently placed on the CBS NUMB3RS page, where a significant percentage of the 12-million-plus viewers of NUMB3RS visit.

Click on the beautiful Flash animation that says “The Math behind NUMB3RS.” That takes you into our site, custom-designed to dovetail with the NUMB3RS look. Our people created the look, which is laid out like a working mathematician’s notebook, and write the content.

“This is amazing!” said a CBS executive when she viewed the site. “This is just perfect!”

“We’re so grateful to Wolfram Research,” said Cheryl Heuton, executive producer for NUMB3RS. “They are so easy to work with and so responsive to our every need.”

NUMB3RS received recognition from the National Science Board for promoting math awareness with students. Wolfram Research is very happy to participate in a well-thought-out campaign to popularize mathematics and science.

So as one of the cool and off-beat perks that come to Wolfram employees because of the cool and off-beat work we sometimes do, our director of communication Jean Buck, cofounder Theodore Gray and Eric, Ed, Michael and Amy were on the NUMB3RS set this week meeting with the show’s actors, directors, writers and producers. They were also honored guests at the Academy of Television Arts special screening of the NUMB3RS season premiere.

Send us email with NUMB3RS in the subject line and tell us what you like or don’t like about the math in the premiere. The most interesting email received by October 5, 2007, gets a special prize: a “The Math behind NUMB3RS” poster signed by the cast of the show and the Wolfram NUMB3RS Brain Trust.

Tune in for more as the season progresses!