November 18th, 2008

pedant, law and order

numb3rs missing new math

I got the first disk of mathematician-helps-FBI crime-drama show Numb3rs from Netflix. I'm disappointed. Granted, I should have known better -- it's like a practicing anthropologist being disappointed by Indiana Jones' lack of respect for stratigraphy.

Numb3rs has a pretty weak hook, anyway -- while David Krumholtz does a reasonable job with the standard Jeff-Goldblum-tortured-smart-sensitive-guy role as Charlie Epps, the mathematician brother, the overall writing would have to be a lot cleverer to really make the math hook work for me. Instead, it's a little too much of the comic-book scientist: the timescales are all wrong, of course, and it's not clear what Charlie actually works on. In one episode, Charlie is working on P=NP as a theoretical problem (chalkboards and all) and consulting for the NSA; in another, he is introduced as a professor of applied mathematics; in a third, he's calculating the fall from a bridge in his head (and noting that it's off by 18 inches).

Most gratingly, I get the sense that the writers have their script fact-checked by some math-aware people, but apparently not with too much contact with the actors. In an epidemiology episode, Charlie shouts "I'm using graph theory and complex numbers to help determine the location of the outbreak" (twice, he says this, which is Not How Science People Do It). To make matters worse, he says "comPLEX numbers", rather than the math-jargon form "COMplex numbers", which kicks me right outta the fantasy: I didn't even realize that he was referring to "numbers with an imaginary component i" at first. I thought he was saying 'I'm using graph theory and some complicated numbers", which seemed apropos of his audience -- a bunch of gumshoe investigators, and now that I think about it, is probably how most consulting mathematicians actually do relate to the people who they consult with.

Sad, because I wanted the show to be better. If the writing were stronger, I could treat this show as a fantasy, i.e. the "Wizard Who Helps His Brother The Ranger", a sort of modern day Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and ignore the Wizardry Not Making Sense, because it's magic. The actors do a pretty good job, with what they're given, but the plots' must twist and turn through so many convolutions (hah!) to make sure that the math guy is involved all the way to the arrest that it becomes quite hard to watch.

Sadly, this show is off the list. It has about as much math as this guy [warning, annoyingly proud-of-himself Jonathan Coulton wannabe behind link].