Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Math in Film: NUMB3RS

So I finally got around to watching he pilot for the series NUMB3RS.  Yeah, I know, the show is way old and quite dead now (it ran from 2005-2010).  But I tend to avoid shows that have mathematicians as main characters.  Hollywood (and environs) understand so little about our practice that they rely on stereotypes rather than seek to educate or play straight.  My son, however, found the pilot, watched it, and promptly told me that the show actually gets some genuine features of mathematicians.  So, armed with his endorsement, I jumped in.

For those who do not know, the show is a crime drama centering around an FBI agent who winds up using his brother's help and expertise to solve very complicated crimes in LA.  The brother is said to be a young, genius, mathematician (professor at Stanford).  The brother's mathematical insight and ideas are a central aspect of the show.  I suspect that in each episode, they are crucial to the solution of the case.  I have only watched the one introductory episode so far.  But they is some merit here.

For the most part, mathematicians are considered brilliant but weird, fascinating but off-putting, playful but socially awkward to the point that people do not really know what to do with them.  I must admit that this is a fairly accurate portrayal even from the inside.  NUMB3RS gets this part right, and the character mathematician has the right zest for life and obsession with the logical structure of everything that he can easily make his way around a conference unnoticed. 

What works is (1) "his work is his life is his work" aspect of how he approaches new puzzles, (2) the idea that there is an elegant solution to every problem and the trick is to simply find it, (3) the notion that everything is mathematical in that everything has a logical structure which, once understood, can be exploited, (4) the absolute certainty of results once proved, and lastly (5) the idea that mistakes are merely foundations for building more enlightened theory.  All seemingly fresh, given other depictions I have seen in film and TV.  I guess this idea in future episodes, like in this one, would be a single big lesson taught in each case, and each lesson would be different.

What didn't work for me?  Well..., the acting was generally very wanting.  The pilot was a bit like the many CSI-type crime dramas where a team is working together to solve a crime.  Every scene with the team has each member saying one line which is crucial to the case (so that they all contribute), and there is little wasted banter. Too unrealistic for me.  Also, the idea that mathematicians only deal with equations, and to them everything is an expression.  In this idea, mathematicians can only work when their ideas are rendered into equations.  This is not true at all.  That was, I suspect a simplification to mesh with the stereotype. 

In any case, it was refreshing to see a depiction much closer to reality than is usual.  Give it is shot.