Friday, February 25, 2005

Numb3rs Review: "Sabotage"

A nice thrilling episode, with very little math (but see below). As always, major spoiler alert.

Plot summary: Series of trains are derailed. At each site, a paper containing the same set of numbers is left behind. Everyone thinks it's a code, but it actually isn't (at least not in the traditional sense). Some good old sleuthing yields the answer.

It was funny when the NTSB official asks Charlie if he knows any cryptography. Although technically isn't cryptanalysis what the code breakers do ? Larry the loony physicist had some hilarious quotes:
  • "Our evening was primal, in the carnal sense, not the mathematical."
  • "The math department, the least libidinous place on campus"
The last fact is sadly not too far from the truth, but wait ! Mathematicans are cool (via Mathpuzzle)

The only real math nuggets came at the end, when Charlie was trying to explain to the female FBI agent that math appears in nature. His example: The Fibonacci series ! Bzzttt...

As it turns out, Rudbeckia Hirta just today posted a note about the exaggerated claims concerning the Fibonacci series; that the Greeks referred to the "golden ratio" (no), that the pyramids and the Parthenon somehow magically encode this ratio (only if you round off heavily), and even how the ratio is supposed to be aesthetically pleasing (no evidence). Keith Devlin has more on this.

Oh well: if Dan Brown can do it...
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p.s I understand that we need some kind of romantic interest to give the series some spice (although CSI and Law and Order manage perfectly well without it), but why on earth are they setting up an advisor-student relationship ? Allegedly at some distant point in the past this used to be fairly common in the humanities, but nowadays ? My only question is: how long before this becomes a "Big Issue" in the academic blogosphere ?


  1. Lubos Motl of Harvard has said on Peter Woits blog that he had a friend who had a student-advisor relationship back in the Czech Republic. I'm guessing this happened in the 90s. I've had friends tell me that there were professors who selected which student would become their next romantic interest for the year. Im guessing it still happens. 

    Posted by Anonymous

  2. I'm pretty sure it still happens. As one professor explained to me the official rules for student-teacher relationships at university X are: "Don't prey on the undergrads, everything else is fair game." Furthermore our university president is married to his former postdoc.

    An actress marrying a hot-shot director may be the best thing for her career. Melinda marrying Bill Gates probably wasn't such a bad decision. On other hand, there are probably bad stories too.

    I had a discussion about professor/student relationships with someone about this recently and she said -- well it's OK if they marry them, but not OK to date and dump. Yes, that would be ideal ;) 

    Posted by Yaroslav Bulatov

  3. Well they sorta-kinda started it on CSI, but it fizzled out (Grissom & Sara). I knew several grad students who tried to date their calculus students, but I don't know any faculty who dated grad students.

    I was especially impressed that it took the NTSB "months" to realize that 36 was the only number that repeated.

    And too bad none of my students are home to watch TV on Friday nights! 

    Posted by Rudbeckia Hirta

  4. It's not that I am surprised that they are pushing this 'affair', it's that it is being pushed without any sense of 'hmm, maybe this is a bad idea'. In the first episode, Charlie did protest when his dad first tried his matchmaking routine, but it was quite feeble, and there hasn't been any protest since.  

    Posted by Suresh

  5. Never seen this in my CS department(student-advisor). My guess is that it would be HEAVILY frowned upon.

    If the student is in another department thats considered OK though. One CS professor married a math grad student.

    Grad students dating undergrads happens all the time and does not seem to carry any sort of stigma.

    But its probably be a good idea not to TA the class your girlfriend/boyfriend is taking. 

    Posted by Anonymous

  6. I wonder when this fetish about Numb3rs is going to wear off. Sure, it comes closest to what we do as theoreticians and mathematicians and finally we get some much-needed exposure but there is this sobriquet in Sanskrit -- koopamandooka -- referring to the "frog in the well" and I find it highly applicable to this situation. We seem to be the only people who gloat childishly about each episode of the Numb3rs a la Baywatch and Friends. This is our very own water-cooler talk but finally is the series getting any outside publicity? How is it faring ratings-wise? And as somebody wryly pointed out (Was it Bill Gasarch or Scott Aaronson, I forget) will it in all likelihood be shelved after the first season? 

    Posted by Anonymous

  7. I am neither a theoretician nor (technically) a mathematician, but I am very interested in Numb3rs. Maybe that doesn't carry much weight since I am  a math teacher. But my mother (who is a homemaker, secretary, and substitute elementary teacher) absolutely loves it. So I'd have to say no, you bonafide mathematicians aren't the only people excited about it.

    As for ratings, it's doing all right for a Friday night drama. An additional 4 episodes have been ordered, making a total of 12 for this season, and the buzz is that it will get picked up for next season since CBS hasn't had much Friday success since Nash Bridges. 

    Posted by Rachel

  8. I have been reading through the postings here on all the episodes so far and am fascinated by the comments of those of you with medium to major knowlege of mathematic principles, theories, etc.

    I come from a planet far, far away from that as a graphic artist, but I find myself absolutely mezmarized by this series. While those more "in the know" regarding the theories presented might twinge at a stretch of concept or inaccurate use of data, I can be more forgiving and see a refreshing use of ideas and concepts; a way to integrate mathematical theory to everything and anything around us--which is something no math instructor I ever had seemed to be capable of doing (zzzzzz).

    Even the volcabulary used is refreshing. I can't remember the last time I made a reach for my dictionary to learn more about that word they just used while watching a TV show! It just doesn't happen. And, of course, being the graphic artist I am really noticing the integrated motion graphics. VERY nicely done and getting better episode by episode. The best stuff out there right now without naming major motion pictures.

    This is the most refreshing and challenging television series I have seen in a very long time. Kudos for who-ever decided they wanted to give us a little more of a challenge. 

    Posted by Faye Ackeret

  9. Numb3rs is the greatest show ever! Check out my site about it @ 

    Posted by ZoofyTheJinx

  10. Just wanted to pop in and voice my appreciation of sites like this and others where folks in the math and science communities can chew over the ambitions and failings of the show.

    Our goal first and foremost is to intrigue and tantalize the non-math people out there in TV land. We want people who've never given mathematics a second thought to stop and consider the role that math plays in society and day to day life. For the mathematicians out there, we want to be as engaging and accurate as possible -- while being able to create the type of show that WILL attract a sizeable audience that will keep us on the air and continue introducing mathematical and scientific concepts to general population.

    We hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive us a few transgressions and errors. There are times when we need to stretch the math to get a story to land emotionally. (The other major part of Numbers is the family dynamic -- indeed a good portion of our audience tunes in for this element as much the math.)

    As for the non-math people out there ... they seem to like the show. We are one of the highest rated Friday night shows to come along in a long time. We just recently beat L&O: Trail by Jury. Our fan base is growing each week. Word of mouth apparently is very good.

    So, yes, a good part of the rest of country is tuning in and they like what they see. They're intrigued by the math. And it's our sincere desire that after they've seen the show they will seek out more information about the concepts mentioned on the show -- that they arrive at web sites like this and hear from the mathematicians themselves and be able to find more involved and specific information about the math on the show.

    And yes, one of the conceits of a network TV show like this is that Charlie will have an unrealistic breadth of knowledge and expertise. Charlie has to stand in for many types of mathematicians and introduce many varied and different mathematical concepts and applications to the FBI. Charlie is a character designed to intrigue -- to personify a passion about mathematics and compell a network TV audience to tune in and *listen.*

    Through a character like Charlie ... we really hope to make mathematics exciting, intriguing, and fascinating to a general public that typically likes to brag at "being bad at math."

    If we at Numbers have our way ... and Charlie does his job ... fewer and fewer people out there will feel comfortable making such a boast!  

    Posted by Nick Falacci

  11. hey i'm doing a project on the show numb3er's would you guys mind if i used some of your comments i really think there interresting! please reply 

    Posted by cyle ruff

  12. go ahead... i own this site 

    Posted by lolol

  13. thats just great


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