Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Even More Numb3rs

There are so many blogs about the TV series Numb3rs out there, it hardly seems worth it for me to write about it myself, especially as it has now been renewed for its third season. But when I talk to my mathematical inclined colleagues, very few of them have actually watched the series. Mathematics on TV is so incredibly rare that I would have thought that they would jump at the chance to see a popular TV show with a high mathematical content. So clearly word isn't getting out and I'm going to talk about it anyway.


Numb3rs is yet another FBI series with the protagonists solving crimes. What makes it different is that Charlie, the brother of the lead FBI agent, is a mathematician who consults for the agency. What's astonishing about the series is that week after week, Charlie uses mathematics to solve crimes. He's a mathematical crime fighting superhero. What's more, I've watched most of the first series, and the mathematics used in each episode actually has a degree of plausibility.

You might not be convinced. So here's a quick summary of the plot of the pilot episode (on the DVD of season one):
<SPOILER>

Charlie tries to track a serial killer by fitting a probability distribution to the attacks, with the assumption that the killer lives at the 'centre' of the distribution. It fails to produce a lead. But then Charlie has the flash of inspiration that he should be looking for a bimodal distribution with two peaks. He reworks the data and finds both where the killer lives and where he works. This is prime time TV. 10pm Friday night (where I live). We have a TV show where the plot hinges on how many local maxima a probability density function has. I don't know about you, but I find this quite unbelievable. But amazingly, this is a real TV series.
</SPOILER>


The show isn't problem free. I'm not exaggerating when I describe Charlie as a superhero. He solves mathematical problems in a new field overnight that would take experts days, weeks or months. The editing is pretty choppy - we cut from scene to scene with rapid fire explanation leaving viewers without enough time to assimilate information. (Watching on DVD so you can rewind and pause helps.) The scripts feel a little like writing by numbers (so to speak). You feel a little too aware of when the writers have gone into "character development mode" or "action mode" or "explain for the benefit of the audience mode" and the character development is all standard stuff.

I have to say that I'm pretty impressed with the inventiveness of the writers in creating mathematics related plots. My dream job would be creating mathematical or scientific ideas for TV shows (I could have invented much better technobabble than Heisenberg compensators and there have been countless scripts that I'd have loved to have touched up.) But I doubt I could have created as many plots as the Numb3rs team have managed. And despite the exaggeration, they've done so without making the mathematics completely preposterous (at least not in the first season).

And one last quibble: does Charlie have to say "statistical analysis" and "equation" so often?

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