Friday, February 04, 2005

Numb3rs Review: "Vector"

This episode had very little math, except a reference to a standard model of disease spread called an SIR model.

I have to say that the writers spent a lot more time getting the math details right than getting the biology right. Why on earth would you compare geometric structures of DNA, when you could just look at the sequence ? My wife the biologist had two comments on this, her first episode.
  • "This is not a TV show, it's a horror movie"
  • "I've been beaten senseless"
(as an aside, she refused to watch Jurassic Park when it first came out). She also assures me that the pictures of the DNA model are wrong (the alleged differences would be on the inside of the helix, not the outside). They did mumble something about RNA, but RNA wouldn't look like the pictures they had on screen.

There was an amusing incident with the eccentric string theorist where he forgot which way he was headed. I could be wrong, but I think this refers to an anecdote involving Herman Weyl at Princeton.

There was more Numb3rs PR in the math press. Keith Devlin (the Math Guy) had an interesting article on Numb3rs at MAA Online. He does an occasional segment on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. His interviews make for interesting listening (a recent one was on the continuum hypothesis).
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  1. It felt like your typical mad scientist episode. It was my first time watching it, and I was disappointed at how little math it had. Better luck next week I guess. 

    Posted by didier

  2. I liked his interaction with the string theorist too. They seem to be getting better with portraying the physicist as a sort of mentor to the mathematician.

    The absent mindedness could also be a reference to Albert Einstein. I've heard an anecdote about Einstein taking walks in Princeton only to stop and ask a child if she knew where he lived. 

    Posted by Anonymous

  3. As a doctor and molecular biologist myself, I found the part where they were comparing DNA structure to be just plain silly. I wanted to throw something at the TV during that part. You're right. All a real molecular biologist would do would be to compare the sequences using any number of text-based programs available for Windows or the Mac. 

    Posted by Orac

  4. Actually even the anecdote you attribute to Einstein was attributed to Weyl in my sources. I have to say that in all the mythology that has sprung up around Einstein, his being absent-minded was not something I ever heard.  

    Posted by Suresh

  5. It was the "-- and graph theory!" part of his description of how he approached the problem that was greeted by the most laughter here. I'm expecting it to sink to the level of math mad-libs pretty soon.  

    Posted by Rudbeckia Hirta

  6. I think you all are missing the point. They did make mistakes with some stuff, but who cares. It is a show meant to entertain, it isn't a documentary on mathematics or physics. Being in the physics field myself, I did notice mistakes, but I can suspend my disbelief and actually enjoy it for what it really is, a tv show. In case anyone has noticed the show isn't actually about the math, it's about human interaction and behavior 

    Posted by JC Hauptberg

  7. Physicists and mathematicians out there:

    you should be glorying in your incipient apotheosis! First, doctors were rendered "cool" (ER), then forensic scientists (CSI). Now it's your turn!

    Semi-seriously, if the show does in some small way make lonely high school math-nerds feel a little better about committing their lives to problems that are not NP-Complete (did I get the jargon right? I confess I am an English professor), it is probably not a bad thing.  

    Posted by Amardeep

  8. this is true. Overall, I am not complaining. I think even the snippets of math they show are far beyond what people are accustomed to expecting math to be about, so that is fine 

    Posted by Suresh

  9. Numb3rs rocks! Check out my site @ 

    Posted by ZoofyTheJinx


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