For a science writer who specializes in physics topics, I’m still surprisingly phobic about math. Chalk it up to my English major roots, but the sight of even a simple algebraic equation still elicits an involuntary shudder of trepidation. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of aptitude. I might not be gifted in the subject, or have that mysteriously intuitive grasp of abstract numerical concepts that distinguish most talented mathematicians and physicists from the rest of the population, but I always did very well in my high school algebra classes. So why did I fear it so much?
Human beings tend to fear the unfamiliar and unknown. We might have been formally — nay, forcibly — introduced as part of the required US educational curriculum, but math and I, we were never close. Our relationship was doomed from the start. For one thing, we never learned how to communicate. Our conversations were strictly monologues, with no room for give and take. I might have gotten "As" in my algebra classes, but I was merely doing what I was told: memorizing the "rules", plugging in the parameters, and dutifully crunching out answers by rote, with no real grasp of the significance of what I was doing, or its usefulness in solving real-world problems. The lack of a contextual framework meant that no genuine dialogue could take place, and without that dialogue, there could be no real understanding.
Apparently I did better in high school algebra than my fellow math-phobe, actor David Krumholtz, star of the hit TV series Numb3rs, in which he plays a brilliant young mathematician. Not many actors show up at scientific conferences, but Krumholtz braved the sea of pocket protectors to participate in a panel discussion at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, focusing on the challenge of changing negative public perceptions of math (and science). With disarming frankness, he readily admitted — before a roomful of uber-geeks, mind you — that he’d flunked algebra twice in high school. Krumholtz is clearly highly intelligent and articulate, in addition to the thespian gifts that helped make him famous. Like me, his struggles with math weren’t due to a lack of aptitude, but to how the subject matter was presented. Just learning the equations by rote wasn’t sufficient. Neither one of us ever really understood why math was important, or how it could possibly be of any use or relevance in our daily lives.
If only we’d had the benefit of a TV show like Numb3rs, which demonstrates that relevance better than any pedagogical method I’ve yet encountered. And it does this while still being commercially viable. It is the most-watched show on Friday nights, and ranks 15th overall among all primetime series. It has spawned numerous fan sites, not to mention a popular blog by a professor at Northeastern University, discussing the real-world mathematics mentioned in each episode. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has latched onto the show as well, offering study guides for high school math teachers. (Go here for an in-depth interview with CalTech math professor Gary Lorden, who serves as consultant to the show, by NCTM President Cathy Seeley.) Numb3rs is the gold standard for any TV show (or other media format) aspiring to combine mainstream commercial entertainment with believable yet accurate scientific content. The tag line sums it up perfectly: "We all use math every day."
In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, it centers on the relationship between two brothers who couldn’t be more different on the surface. Don Eppes (played by Rob Morrow) is a practical-minded FBI agent intent on catching the bad guys by any means necessary to ensure the safety and security of America and its citizens. Charlie Eppes (Krumholtz) is the quintessential absent-minded professor, a mathematical genius whose precociousness earned him tenure at a prestigious California institute — loosely based on CalTech — at the ripe old age of 26. The two brothers are repeatedly thrown together when Charlie’s math skills turn out to be critical to helping Don solve the crime du jour. In the process, they develop a growing appreciation for their respective strengths, and realize how well they complement each other.
There’s also a lot of physics that comes into play: everything from surface tension, radar, GPS and cell phone technology, to more exotic concepts like quantum entanglement and Bell’s theorem, as well as the recently launched Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), which is searching the vast expanse of outer space for evidence of gravitational waves even as I type. (As a side note, your computer can help aid in the search via the ongoing Einstein@home project.) The physics component isn’t surprising, given the fact that math is the language of physics. The two are inextricably intertwined, and that relationship is mirrored in the equally tight bond between Charlie and his best friend, Larry (Peter MacNichol), a theoretical physicist who frequently steps in with useful advice, such as pointing out that Charlie’s idealized mathematical models don’t always translate perfectly into physical reality — especially when it comes to predicting human behavior.
Why does Numb3rs get it so right, when so many other attempts at public outreach in science and math get it so wrong? For one thing, husband/wife co-creators Cheryl Heuton and Nick Fallacci — both of whom were also on hand for the panel discussion in St. Louis — didn’t set out with the express intention of creating an educational program about math. There was no didactic or pedagogical aim whatsoever. Rather, their objective was to create something fresh and compelling for a major TV network (CBS). Crime-solving shows are always popular with audiences, and the huge success of the C.S.I. franchise proved that it was possible for a TV show to incorporate scientific concepts.
Math is an even harder sell, but couching it within the familiar crime-solving framework renders its abstract concepts not just palatable to the average layperson, but downright appealing. Viewers don’t just love the characters and plot lines, they love the math in Numb3rs, according to feedback from focus groups — even women, in defiance of the prevailing gender stereotypes. Perhaps that’s because Heuton and Fallacci do such a good job drawing vivid analogies and metaphors, which are then turned into stunning visual effects to illustrate the abstract mathematical concepts.
For Heuton, the heart of Numb3rs is its relationships, especially between the two brothers, who represent "two different kinds of thinking thrown together," she said — a clash of intellectual cultures. Add in their complicated relationship with their widowed father (Judd Hirsch), Charlie’s friendship with Larry, the odd love interest, then mix it all together with cops and robbers and our enduring enthusiasm for solving mysteries, and you’ve got the makings of a hit TV show.
It also helps that the creators cared enough about their characters to give them all-too-human failings. Charlie can be arrogant, even petty at times, but he is also plagued by moments of self-doubt that only endear his character further. And he doesn’t always get the right answer the first time around, just like mathematicians in the real world. (Of course, in "TV math" he figures out his mistake in roughly 35 minutes. Real mathematical proofs, such as the famed Kepler conjecture — which dates back to 1611 and describes the most efficient way to pack spheres in a box — can take centuries to solve.)
That crucial human element first ignited my love for physics, and also inspired my first book (Black Bodies and Quantum Cats). And it’s the reason I tune in every Friday night to catch the latest episode of Numb3rs. I’m not alone in my enthusiasm; millions of others are doing likewise. Even Krumholtz confessed to developing a passion for Pythagoras and the Fibonacci sequence, especially their prevalence in nature and art. His favorite line in the series thus far: "Math is Nature’s language, its method of communicating directly with us." The show serves a similar purpose, enabling math to communicate directly with TV viewers who would otherwise remain ignorant of its elegant beauty and practicality. It provides that critical contextual framework that makes dialogue — and thereby true understanding — possible.
At the St. Louis conference, Krumholtz shared his favorite story about an encounter with a seven-year-old viewer who told him how much she liked the show, adding that her eight-year-old brother was also a fan: "He hates math, but he loves Numb3rs." I couldn’t have said it better myself. But perhaps one day, thanks to shows like Numb3rs, we can truthfully say we love math as well.