Articles for kids about math in everyday life, written by Ivars Peterson for Muse magazine.

June 28, 2007

By the Numb3rs

"We all use math every day." That's a line you might hear in math class or see at a science museum. You don't expect to find a TV crime series that celebrates it. Yet millions of people hear this line every week at the beginning of the popular CBS show Numb3rs, which features a young math professor as a crime fighter.

Charlie Eppes, played by David Krumholtz, uses math to help his older brother, Don, who's an FBI agent, solve crimes. For example, he uses a mathematical equation to identify a killer's location by working backward from the crime scene locations. Or he solves an undecipherable numerical code left at the sites of train wrecks to discover who's causing them.

Math comes up in other ways, too. In one show a man's daughter is kidnapped because he is about to solve Riemann's hypothesis, sometimes called the most difficult unsolved problem in mathematics, thereby winning a $1 million prize.

For many people, part of the fun of watching the series is to see if they can spot mathematical stuff—games, puzzles, books, calculators, posters—in Charlie's cluttered office. They also listen for references to mathematical concepts and famous mathematicians that often have nothing to do with the plot but still say something about a mathematician's life and interests. The see-through blackboards are pretty cool, too.

The show's producers and writers go to a lot of trouble to find stories that involve math and to check with experts to make sure that they use math correctly. It takes about 2 months to go from an idea to a final script.

Just before episodes are filmed, the actors sometimes get written explanations of the math concepts that will come up—but they don't always read them. Krumholtz used to have a hand double who wrote his equations for him, but more recently the actor has begun to write them for himself.

A team of teachers also gets a preview of each script before it's filmed. Inspired by a program's math content, they prepare classroom activity sheets, which are made available at on the Monday before each new show is broadcast. You can also check out Numb3rs blogs. The math department at Northeastern University in Boston, for example, provides background information on topics the shows touch on, such as digital image processing or blackjack strategies, at

Of course, no real mathematician could possibly know as much as Charlie does about so many different areas of mathematics. But you expect TV stars to be larger than life—and those CSI guys sure can figure out a lot from one "epithelial"!

Muse, April 2006, p. 43.

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