Crunching the numbers on a crime show that’s supposed to be about math
The former CBS show Numb3rs, otherwise known as CSI-Math or “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.
Here’s one. I notice that in Episode 7 they start drinking out of thermal mugs and use them in 100 percent of the episodes thereafter except for a mysterious disappearance in Episode 12. I don’t know what this means.
Charlie’s father—who Charlie still lives with at age 29—asks probing questions about whether Charlie has a girlfriend in episodes 2, 3, and 6. It’s difficult to tell whether the father is wondering if his son is gay or trying to suss out whether the young professor will move out at some point, for god’s sake; the sample size is too small.
Vertically mounted maps that are then circled using either red or white markers for geolocation occur in 100 percent of the shows. Also critical to the show are data and time. Data as in, “If I could just get my hands on some geospacial radar imagery data, you know I’d be able to narrow the list of targets.” And time as in, “You’ve just asked me to solve one of the world’s biggest mysteries in a few hours.”
Surprisingly, the phrase, “It’s a long shot, but ...” only turns up in Episode 3. And the word “supercomputer” is only used in Episode 5 (although it’s used three times). Around Episode 6 I find myself talking back to the show. I say things like, “Do a regression analysis, Charlie!” and, “Have you considered wave theory?” even though I don’t have the faintest idea what either of these things are. Episodes 7 and 8 I watch at an angle, lying on the sofa, while the other 11 episodes I watch in a sitting position, slightly bent forward. Twice
I take a break to make meals that would be considered more like dinner than a midnight snack. Four times I pause the show and wander outside to check out the night sky. Once (halfway through Episode 12) I call my own professor brother. He doesn’t pick up.
Charlie manages to show up at the scene of the crime in episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, and 13. Each time this really affects him. His job is no longer the challenge of understanding abstract causality in our universe, it’s life and death, mainly death. These crisis-of-faith moments seem to coincide with brushes against the remnants of actual, real-life violence. Maybe he sees a victim wrapped in that black bag, or a marker where the bullet casings landed, or he notices a victim’s family member. Either way, these moments are united by a certain deepness to his stare.
The one glaring exception to his crime scene visits is Episode 11. In this episode, Charlie bumps into a young mathematics research assistant whose mentor has been brutally murdered. The murder has caused the kid to re-evaluate what he’s interested in doing with his life. He tells Charlie that he’s headed back to school to study econometrics because he’s interested in using math for good. “People assume that the economy is this adversarial relationship where one person’s gain by definition has to be another person’s loss. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There can be gains for everybody.”
Good kid, right? Wrong. He’s the killer. Stabbed his mentor to death just before the man was able to complete the formula. What formula? Allow Charlie to explain, “Once he was through, theoretically he’d be able to predict human performance based on geographic and environmental factors down to a city block.”
One of the FBI agents breaks that down for us. “So basically, you are where you live.”
Wow. That’s some rough stuff: math being used to predict and possibly determine who will and won’t succeed. At the end of the show Charlie confronts the kid about the killing just before they duck his head into the squad car. Turns out the kid grew up in West Oakland and computers were his only savior. “It’s not too difficult to figure out what Dr. Hoke’s formula would say about putting a computer lab in my high school,” the kid tells Charlie, comparing this kind of detailed statistical analysis and resource allocation to the Nazis’ use of eugenics. “I did what I had to do to stop that before it started.”
“That makes you a murderer,” Charlie retorts.
But it’s not that simple. The kid points out that Charlie consults for the National Security Agency, and does he think for one second that all his NSA work is being used for good?
Silence. Cue the deep stare.
At a recent dinner someone explained to me his theory behind the popularity of CSI. It’s because the show explains everything three times, he said. One character makes the big statement, another character rephrases it, and a third character rephrases it again. If you don’t understand that first pass, by the time they’re done with the third explanation everything is crystal clear.
Hearing this, another friend, a federal prosecutor, complained that it was CSI that had poisoned the jury pool. Everyone’s an expert in forensics now, so when they go to deliberate they say things like, “Did they implement fluorescent scanners to look for fingerprints on the file?” or, “How come they forgot to use a nano-DNA swab?”
Numb3rs didn’t just last for a season. It ran six, totaling 119 episodes, each with millions of viewers. I hope that these fans feel an equal sense of expertise in math as the CSI fans feel in forensics— by which I mean, like me, they don’t really get it but at least they think they do. Most of the things Charlie uncovers on the series, even the dumbed-down illustrations and examples, go over my head. I’ve always held the geeks in high esteem and longed for their quantified understanding of the natural beauty in the universe. While it’s possible for a mathematician to look at a piece of art and see something gorgeous, the probability of an artist looking at a mathematician’s work and seeing the same is smaller. The fact that Numb3rs even bothers is impressive to me. Much like Charlie, Numb3rs does the math thing with an undeniable level of conviction. Even if we don’t understand, we believe.
While it hasn’t taught me more about math, Numb3rs has taught me how to think like a fake mathematician. Now when I’m pondering whether to park illegally for five minutes I’ll think about the number of traffic cops, the number of streets in the city, the number of trees on those streets, and the period of time we’re talking about, trying to create some kind of probability about whether I’ll get a ticket or not.
So far it’s worked 100 percent of the time.