Math problems are multiplying in prime time


325? 325?

As if Lost devotees didn't have enough to ponder, with 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42. Now that they've been handed three more integers, the conclusion is inescapable: Hollywood has been invaded by numbers.

It's not just the maddening numerical sequence on Lost or the crime drama Numb3rs with tousled mathematician Charlie Eppes.

Numbers are sprinkled through next fall's TV lineup, with seven new integer-heavy titles including The Nine, 3 Lbs. and Six Degrees.

"Numbers have always been hot," says Keith Devlin, Stanford math professor. "It's just that until recently, the media did not shine the spotlight on the heat."

Moviegoers may have flocked to see Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and Russell Crowe in A Brilliant Mind, but mathematicians weren't exactly sex symbols.

The Simpsons managed to sneak math into its plots every so often - one of the writers has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics - but math was subjecta non grata on prime time until recently.

But there was nothing understated about the intentions behind Numb3rs, says Cal Tech professor Gary Lorden, the show's mathematical consultant. The creators designed the show specifically about the way - to quote the program's weekly intro - "We all use math every day."

The crime element was a vehicle to get it into prime time, Lorden said during a discussion on National Public Radio last year.

The pilot featured an FBI agent, his brilliant mathematician brother, a serial rapist and a killer math equation. Critics disapproved of the "unbelievable" plotline, but the story was based on an actual case in Louisiana.

And the equation that Charlie Eppes - actor David Krumholtz - used to pinpoint the rapist's neighborhood was the one a real forensics mathematician used to solve the case.

Most mathematicians are not as cute as Krumholtz, admits Devlin, but the math is always spot on.

Test audiences, armed with dials to turn whenever their interest was piqued, went wild for the math, says co-executive producer Andrew Dettmann.

"When we asked, 'Why did you turn up the dial when the math sequences were explained?' they said they suddenly felt smart," Dettmann recounts.

Lorden enjoyed the crime-solving, but he was absolutely delighted by the math tidbits writers dropped into the show - Fibonacci numbers, game theory and strange mathematical puzzles.

The show has taken off, both in the ratings and with an unlikely television fan base - teachers. At a math educators conference last year, more than 1,000 teachers lined up to see a screening and meet Lorden and Krumholtz.

"They [acted] like we were the Beatles," Lorden said.

Last month, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics launched "We All Use Math Every Day," an educational outreach program based on the show. Executive producer and co-creator Cheryl Heuton was delighted by the chance "to spread the word that 'Math is cool!"'

The cool factor is no surprise to Devlin. "The fascination with numbers that many people have - not everyone, to be sure - sometimes goes deep," he says. "It seems that people want there to be hidden mathematics in everyday life. And there is."

While Numb3rs uncovers how we, well, use math every day, Lost goes for strange coincidences and mathematical relationships. And its mysterious numerical sequence - 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 - is giving old Fibonacci some serious competition in the popularity sweepstakes.

The Lost numbers show up on a lottery ticket, a hatch cover and a mysterious radio broadcast. They have to be re-entered into the hatch's computer every 108 seconds - and 108 is the sum of the numbers. It's strange and compelling stuff.

There's hope for numbers junkies next fall, too. Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams is at the helm of Six Degrees, one of those seven numerically rich TV shows for fall. He plays off the "degrees of separation" idea with a story arc involving six New York strangers and - one hopes - strange numerical sequences and odd coincidences that might be explained using a logistic regression equation or iterative processes or that other thing Charlie Eppes explained so well.

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