Good Culture: Something Doesn’t Add Up

 

 

 

 


Senior Editorial Designer


Artist

The former CBS show Numb3rs, otherwise known as CSI-Mathor “the show with the number three in its title,” is one of those series that seems like it was never actually on, that it came into this world already in syndication. You can usually find a rerun on at around 3 in the morning. I turn to it at the end of the night, when all is dark and the demands of the day have been silenced. I find the show both unwatchable and mesmerizing. No matter how much I tell myself not to look at it, there will be those moments of intractable curiosity when I’ll glance.

Numb3rs is about a crack FBI agent named Don Eppes and his young, math superstar/professor brother, Charlie. It’s a crime drama, but it’s not one of those blunt-hammer crime dramas where they rely on played-out police techniques like interrogation, blood samples, and wiretapping. No, these guys use math. Why math? Because math explains everything, even the allure of a show about math.

Charlie is a math genius. You know this because he can do the one thing that only math geniuses can do: scribble equations on a transparent board at a manic pace (some math geniuses prefer to use a window pane; both answers are acceptable). Charlie spends approximately two minutes of each episode positioned at such a board, writing out equations with a marker as his FBI colleagues crowd around. He then turns to them and gives an ad hoc lecture that ultimately leads to the capture or killing of the bad guy. The other agents listen carefully, taking in esoteric mathematical principles like number theory and multivariable analysis and earnestly adding their own real-life and episode-relevant examples. This is the kind of class participation and energy that teachers only dream about.

The best way to catch bad guys is to examine the patterns they leave. We learn this right off the bat in Episode 1. By carefully noting where water droplets fall from a sprinkler, we can calculate the exact placement of the sprinkler itself. And if instead of water droplets we’re talking about victims, well, that’s how they nail the Los Angeles rapist. In Episode 3 we’re dealing with a potential pandemic—a deliberately unleashed, even-more-deadly version of the famously deadly 1918 Spanish flu. That pattern is right in front of our eyes. To a non-math-oriented FBI agent it looks just like a tree. But guess what? “Branching is a common pattern in nature, from crystals to giant redwoods,” Charlie teaches us.

Case closed. To find patterns, we must first make careful observations.

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