Although Black looks first for math as it actually works, he sometimes has to create solutions that are math as it could plausibly work. This is the talent that makes him indispensable. Hollywood researchers are most valuable when they make the science work for any story. It's no surprise that Black sometimes fudges it a bit.
After the first few episodes aired in 2005, Stanford University math professor Keith Devlin wrote a column for the Mathematical Association of America entitled "Numb3rs Gets the Math Right." Except, of course, when it doesn't. "In some episodes, the math is totally gratuitous and spurious," Devlin says. Helping to track a fugitive through the mountains, Charlie uses 18th-century mathematician Leonhard Euler's classic Konigsberg-bridge problem (which proved that it was impossible to circumnavigate the German city using each of its bridges only once) "as an inspiration" for the equations he uses. Mathematicians gave a collective eye-roll.
Generally, however, the math community praises the show. The series won the 2006 Carl Sagan Award for the advancement of the public understanding of science. Each week, Andy Black types up a memo about the episode's math and sends it to a Texas Instruments"National Council of Teachers of Mathematics partnership, which creates study guides for instructors to teach the show's math in their classrooms.
Watching the show, it's obvious that Black is good at his job. Toward the end of McGill's episode, FBI agents can't determine the identity behind the killer's chat-room avatar, but they have chat records from a group of identified suspects. Black suggested that Charlie make a mathematical model of the killer's syntactical quirks; for instance, he always misspells "receive" and types "nuff" instead of "enough." Assigning numerical values to these quirks, Charlie could find a match among the known suspects. It's actual math: computational linguistic analysis, sometimes used to verify the authorship of typewritten suicide notes. And Charlie applied it appropriately, Weisstein says.
And from there, the show rises to a dramatic conclusion. The FBI, armed with guns and Charlie's math, catch the killer (spoiler alert: it's a woman) just before she kills again.
TURMOIL/TV = SCIENCE FASCINATION
By all indications, next season will top this one for the most science shows ever. CBS Paramount Network Television president David Stapf is developing a series about virus hunters from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NBC bought a new hospital drama from Law & Order: SVU's Neal Baer in October. Audiences are clamoring for night after night of scientific lectures, and it all prompts the question: Why aren't we glazing over?
Back in television's ascendancy, during the nuclear stalemate of the cold war, the wildly successful Twilight Zone portrayed scientists as malicious. In the 1990s, as the economy boomed, interpersonal dramas like Party of Five and Melrose Place were the zeitgeist. In the post-9/11 era, it's the certainty and world-weary confidence of shows like CSI that appeal. Says 3lbs's Ocko, "There's so much turmoil in the world, unease about terrorism, economics, politics. Science proposes a way out. It's a comfort."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.