University of Texas at Austin

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Behind NUMB3RS

“Murder and math. What could be better?”

That’s how Michael Starbird, professor of mathematics, describes his appreciation for the CBS show “Numb3rs.”

Starbird and “Numb3rs” (on CBS at 9 p.m. Fridays) came together at a recent Science Study Break, a series that connects the science in movies and television shows to real science. Past lectures include anthropologist John Kappelman on “Bones” and biologist David Hillis on “CSI.”

“Numb3rs,” in its fifth season, chronicles the adventures of Charles Eppes, a math genius and professor at Cal Sci, as he helps his brother, FBI agent Don Eppes, solve crimes ranging from murder to drug smuggling to terrorism.

The math on “Numb3rs” has its plusses and minuses.

“I think of it as a documentary,” Starbird said, then added a qualifier. “The only problem is that Charlie can do things in a matter of minutes which take people in the real world years to do, if they could do them at all.”

During the Study Break session Starbird used scenes from “Numb3rs” as jumping off points to talk about math.

One of the math topics he covered was randomness.

Michael Starbird

Michael Starbird

Before showing a clip from “Numb3rs,” Starbird asked 10 people to come to the front of the room and array themselves randomly. They did so and spread their group so that a person was in almost every sector of the space.

Then he played the scene in which Charlie demonstrated how he was figuring out where the criminal lived based on where the crimes were committed.

He said the criminal was trying to make the crimes appear to be random by spreading them somewhat evenly throughout the area.

“He doesn’t want you to know where he lives or what areas he frequents,” Charlie said of the criminal.

That’s a tipoff that they were not random events. Charlie had the FBI agents and police officers do the same spread-themselves-around-the-floor-randomly exercise as Starbird did with the audience—with a similar result.

“Look at what you’ve done,” Charlie said. “You have distributed yourselves at equal intervals while true random patterns will include clusters. He tried to do random but ended up with equal spacing.”

“A lot of times we human beings do not accurately assess what to expect from random behavior,” Starbird said.

While Charlie often provides an elementary explanation of the math he uses, it’s unlikely he’ll let the audience in on his greatest mathematical feat: the algorithm he uses in order to drive his Prius from his office on the Cal Sci campus to the downtown FBI offices in minutes in L.A. traffic.

The next Science Study Break is April 15 at 6 p.m. in the Life Science Library in the Main Building. Mitchell Pryor, a lecturer in the Robotics Research Group, will get into the science of the movie “Iron Man.”

Michael Starbird’s “Hot Science-Cool Talks” lecture
Michael Starbird’s Take Five video
University feature story about Michael Starbird

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