Math Adviser for CBS’s “Numb3rs” visits HMC

Gary Lorden, former math adviser for the CBS show “Numb3rs,” spoke in HMC’s Galileo Hall last Friday as part of the 2009 Dr. Bruce J. Nelson ’74 Distinguished Speakers Series.Lorden’s speech incorporated examples from a book he co-authored with Keith Devlin,

The Numbers behind Numb3rs: Solving Crime with Mathematics

, which was based on his tenure working as a mathematical adviser for the crime show.“Numb3rs,” though similar in nature to other prime-time crime series, is based on the premise that math can help solve murders. The program revolves around Charlie, a mathematical genius and the brother of FBI agent Don, and his attempts to use statistics, probability, and sophisticated equations to solve the FBI’s mysteries.Lorden began his talk with a discussion of the show’s inception. According to Lorden, casting for the role of Charlie aimed to find a “Feynman-like mathematician.” After casting agents turned away countless individuals, they found a perfect match in David Krumholtz, who “could actually read lines with numbers in them.”Lorden related an incident at Caltech that occurred after he claimed that “Numb3rs” was making math “sexy.”“The students at Caltech liked it,” Lorden said. “They quoted it, saying, ‘This show will help mathematicians get girls.’”Much of the rest of the lecture focused on probability and the significance of using precise math in real-world situations.Although only the first episode of the show was based on a real-life crime solved using math, Lorden gave an example of the fallacies and unexpected consequences of dismissing statistical information from real-life cold cases.He referred to a decades-old rape and murder case, in which DNA evidence taken from the mouth of the victim was matched against a database of samples taken from 338,000 criminals. A match was eventually found and tried and convicted of the murder.Although the jury was aware of the fact that there was a one in 1.1 million chance that the charged individual was an unrelated and coincidental match, the FBI failed to relate that when such a probability was multiplied by the number of profiles in the database, that chance increased to one in three.During the last 15 minutes of the lecture, audience members were encouraged to ask questions.When one individual inquired whether any of the show’s math was ever contrived, Lorden responded, “Well, it’s always real math. But it’s television and the character has an hour to go from no data to finding a guy in a forest, so sometimes they come up with equations which haven’t got a damn thing to do with the solution.”He also spoke on the program’s impact outside of show business.“For me, the best thing you can do is teach people in a way where you can tell they’re thinking differently,” Lorden said.In fact, Lorden said both students and teachers were drawing inspiration from the show. Not only was there news that panels of teachers were making up problems about the show, but the Caltech admissions office also cited a 62 percent increase in the number of entering freshmen majoring in math.Lorden concluded his talk with a final note to students to be grateful for “faculty who can write on the board, talk, and, sometimes, even make sense.”“The lecture was very interesting and [although] I study theoretical stuff that doesn’t apply to real life, [this lecture] just proves that it can be used,” said Steve Matsumoto HM ’12. “I’ll probably start watching the show now.”Lorden was the third in a line-up of five scheduled Nelson speakers who “explore the impact that mathematics has had upon the world.” The series, dubbed “The Power + Beauty of Mathematics,” will next host Keith Devlin on Thursday.

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