Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Just saw a preview for the new CBS series Numb3rs. As Lance had previously mentioned, the premise of this series is that an FBI agent uses his math whiz brother to help him solve crimes, CSI-style.

I was worried that all this would do is reinforce traditional stereotypes of mathematicians. At least the actor playing the mathematician doesn't have thick glasses. However the preview is not encouraging. There are exchanges like 'Life is more than just numbers ! Life is all about numbers !', and inane sequences where the math whiz says 'There is no statistical evidence for X', his brother says 'X will happen', and lo and behold, X happens.

(subtext: mathematicians are hopeless geeks out of touch with the real world, but are useful as part of a dog-and-pony show).


[Update: actually it wasn't so bad in the actual show. See the review]

Rudbeckia Hirta has a scenario that the series could use. As an aside, the following story is an amusing counterweight to the "mathematician = number cruncher" stereotype:
One striking characteristic of Grothendieck’s mode of thinking is that it seemed to rely so little on examples. This can be seen in the legend of the so-called “Grothendieck prime”. In a mathematical conversation, someone suggested to Grothendieck that they should consider a particular prime number. “You mean an actual number?” Grothendieck asked. The other person replied, yes, an actual prime number. Grothendieck suggested, “All right,take 57.”


  1. I saw Numb3rs last night and I was concerned about the depiction of the African American character. It appeared to me that he never completed his assignment; was late with his assignment; and needed to be "helped" far too often. It was a negative depiction of African American males found far too often on TV.
    With respect to the mathematics, I thought that it didn't do much to explain (and thus excite) to viewers mathematics theory. Rather the show just listed in rapid fashion some concepts and theories without doing much more. 

    Posted by Abdiel

  2. Numb3rs is one of the best shows to come around in a long time. I am speaking as a mathematician, but it does not put forth the stereotype that all mathematicians are "dorky" or even creepy. Of course, one should not ride a bike around Los Angeles, but it does keep my attention and is very intriguing at times. The supporting cast is also excellent. I hope the show runs for a long time to come. 

    Posted by Joe

  3. As a high school mathematics teacher, I hope it inspires my students to realize that there is much left to be discovered about mathematics, and that one never knows in what capacity they may use mathematics in their life.

    The longer the series runs, the more believeable and real the characters seem. That can only help the image of the mathematician and the thinker. 

    Posted by Cheryl


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