The 'Numb3rs' Don't Lie Mathematics may seem like an unusual tool to catch criminals, but real math and actual events inspire the CBS crime drama Numb3rs. Guests discuss the intersection of math-based crime solving and prime-time television.
NPR logo

The 'Numb3rs' Don't Lie

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15039360/15042817" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The 'Numb3rs' Don't Lie

The 'Numb3rs' Don't Lie

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15039360/15042817" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

If you're a fan of television crime drama, you've probably seen the show "Numb3rs." It's on Friday night on CBS, and it's one of the most popular shows on the network. Each week, the main character of Charlie helps his detective brother solve crimes, not by using those strange lights they do on one of the "CSI" shows, some - the liquids and whatever. His tool is using math. He puts math to work, because Charlie is a - the character is a brilliant mathematician professor at the made-up Cal Sci University. And his crime-fighting arsenal may include everything from the Riemann hypothesis to game theory to link analysis.

He really is quite the mathematician. But maybe you're not, you know? Maybe you've found yourself wondering, hey, you know, I know that stuff on the other "CSI" shows. Real-time police don't have all those tools. How much, you know, use can real-time police make of all the mathematics and detectives make of all the math they see on these shows? Can math really help the police solve crimes?

Well, joining me now to talk about it are my guests. They are co-authors of a new book out that's quite an interesting read. It's called "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs." And let me introduce them. Gary Lorden he is the co-author. He's professor of mathematics at California Institute of Technology - a real place -and the math consultant to the television show "Numb3rs." He joins us from KPCC in Pasadena.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Lorden.

Dr. GARY LORDEN (Professor of Mathematics, California Institute of Technology; Co-author, "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs"): Thanks, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Keith Devlin is the NPR math guy. He's also co-author of the book "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs." He's executive director of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information. He joins us of from Stanford.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. KEITH DEVLIN (Executive Director, Stanford University Center for the Study of Language and Information; Co-author, "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs"): Hi, Ira. Nice talking to you again.

FLATOW: Hi, how are you?

Dr. DEVLIN: Better. Good. Thank you.

FLATOW: How much - let me ask you, Gary. What do you do as a consultant on the show "Numb3rs"? Do you come up with the plot theme or, you know, they run it by you?

Dr. LORDEN: The latter. What happens on the show, depending on which writers -they have over a dozen - are doing an episode is that they, either fairly early - while they're developing the idea - consult with me a little bit about it, or more typically, I see a version of the script at the stage a couple of weeks before they actually start shooting. And then, I'm supposed to see if the math that they're thinking of using is realistic enough, and if not, what to suggest instead.

FLATOW: Do they stretch the math a lot? I mean, do you have to, you know, decide whether your integrity is compromised?

Dr. LORDEN: Actually, it's not so much question of integrity as hype. Just like Dr. House and some of the lawyer shows, what is done on television always involves a superhuman - a superhero, and in this case it's the mathematician, which is of course, wonderful for me. The mathematician is able to do things that in the real world would require a lot more data and a lot more time. He's able to pull things together and come up with very insightful math that helps the FBI determine exactly who to go after.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. The first chapter of you book talks about geographic profiling. It's used to catch serial killers. Tell us what that is?

Dr. LORDEN: Well, geographic profiling is an idea that carries mathematics into that sort of standard image we've all seen in movies and TV crime-fighting for a long time, where they have a map on a board some place and they have little pins on it showing the locations of some attacker. And the idea of geographic profiling is to try to use those locations to deduce mathematically where the most likely zone is in which the attacker lives or works, that is his home base.

And that was actually done in a real case in Louisiana, a serial rape case. And the crime was solved with the help of a former Canadian - Royal Canadian Mounted policeman who happened to get a PhD and do a thesis in this mathematical method called geographical profiling. His name is Kim Rossmo. And the first episode of the show detailed how the same kind of math that Kim used; in fact, the same formula to solve the real case would solve the case on television.

FLATOW: On the other hand, Keith Devlin, if you were a serial killer and you were a little bit savvy about math and knew about this technique, couldn't you thwart the pattern by doing something unexpected so it would not fit into it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DEVLIN: You know you might think that, but in fact, we feel that we have sort of free choice and we do what we want. But people, because of the way we're put together, tend out to be remarkably predictable. And, you know, I might hold off the cops for a few extra crimes by trying to hide my tracks, but just because I'm a human being - particularly if I'm a psychopathic human being who is particularly ritualistic about my behavior - it wouldn't take more than an extra few data points for those equations to catch me no matter what I do. People cannot behave randomly sufficiently well to thwart off mathematics. Mathematics will get them in the end.

FLATOW: How did you convinced, both of you, how did you convinced the producers of a TV show to do something based on mathematics? I would think that will be almost mission impossible - not to mention another show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LORDEN: Well, that, actually, that convincing was done by the husband and wife team who created the show, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci. They're still, kind of the head writers and do a lot of the episodes, and they live just a couple of miles from Pasadena - excuse me - from Caltech in Pasadena and they based the show on the idea of a Richard Feynman-like genius.

Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physics professor at Caltech. And they wanted a younger version who would be - a mathematician, who would help his older brother who works for the FBI solve these crimes. And they pitched that idea to CBS. And CBS, in their great wisdom, thought that that would be an appealing idea and they commissioned a pilot, actually two pilots, the second of which was shot on campus - many scenes at Caltech.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LORDEN: And so it worked. The focus group said, gee, we like the math. And so CBS took a fly around it, and the show's been consistently winning its timeslot at 10 o'clock on Friday nights. And most times, actually wins all the Friday night - has the most viewers of any show on Friday night.

FLATOW: Hmm. Do you think you're doing a public service when you do this show?

Dr. LORDEN: I think we all do, who are associated with the show, yes.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah. You know, in fact, I - go ahead, Gary.

Dr. LORDEN: Go ahead, Keith. Go ahead.

Dr. DEVLIN: Okay. Now, in fact, I, you know, I saw a rough cut of the first pilot before it was ever broadcast. They were sort of circulating around mathematicians. And I was so hooked on the idea and the way they've done it that I e-mailed immediately Nick and Cheryl, who I've never met, and said this looks great. If you need any help from someone in the business, I'd be delighted to help. And in fact, in the first series, I did help out occasionally with some advice. But I've - I thought this was a great thing and I was very pleased that they accepted my offer to be part of it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do people actually tune in to see the math be the hero in this show?

Dr. LORDEN: I think they do.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LORDEN: We certainly do, and lots of other people tell us that they do. Lots of times, I'll be in an airport somewhere and encounter somebody. And if my wife brags that, you know, I work on the TV show "Numb3rs," they'll say, oh, I love that show. I love the math, and so on. And these are people who, you know, never took calculus in their lives, have no idea about advanced mathematics. But the way the math is presented on the show, many people say it's engaging and makes them feel smart just to see and hear the way Charlie explains the math. And he does it in a brilliant way. It's nothing like…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LORDEN: …college or high school lecture.

FLATOW: But I remember from some of the early shows - and maybe the first season, I remember one of the show is opening with something that had math that had nothing to do with the rest of the show. It was, I think, the Fibonacci series on a flower or something like that. They were sitting around in their little communal area and someone had a flower in a vase and just started talking about it.

Dr. LORDEN: That was one of the great endings of the show. What the writers like to do, since the show really crucially involves the three people in this family - the wonderful actor Judd Hirsch plays the father of the FBI brother and the younger brother who's a mathematician - Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz play those parts.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LORDEN: And the show often ends with them or some of the others involved -the FBI agents and so on - sitting around after the case is solved. And the one you're talking about with the flower was one where Charlie gets a little bit of a challenge from one of the female agents about, you know, really what is math, why do you use math so much, and what's it good for, and is it really that useful, and so on.

Of course, she's just seen how he solved the case using it. And then, he goes in, Charlie does, to this wonderful explanation about mathematics is everywhere even in a flower, and he talks about the Fibonacci sequence and all the ways that it and the golden ratio that's involved in characterizing it appear in Parthenon and Rome and in the shape of a card that's used to advertise sweepstakes and so on and so forth. It's a wonderful scene, and the actor David Krumholtz was just thrilled to have the chance to do that scene.

FLATOW: Are you familiar with the Richard Feynman statement about that that's saying, if I can see the beauty in a flower more than you do, it's because I appreciate the math and the other things behind it.

Dr. LORDEN: Yeah. Feynman had a lot of those insights, and since Nick and Cheryl are great fans of Feynman and have read a great deal about him, they like to incorporate sort of Feynman-like touches in the way the characters on the show behave. It's not just Charlie. He has a beautiful fellow mathematician who actually was his PhD student, Amita, played by the wonderful actress Navi Rawat. And then, he has this sort of corky physicist, slightly older colleague who was a mentor of his in his student days, and that's played by Peter MacNicol. And between the three of them and the occasional other characters -in fact, in tonight's episode, they're introducing a new character who's sort of a rough, street…

FLATOW: Oh, tell us about it.

Dr. LORDEN: Well, he's a kind of street-smart electrical - excuse me -mechanical engineer. He's one of these guys that if you saw him on the street with the tattoos and stuff in a kind of scruffy jeans and T-shirt, you'd never think that he was a professor at a school like Caltech. CalSci is just a scarcely disguised version of Caltech. And so, the character is able to use some of the street smarts, it's - actually, I'm sorry. It's not tonight's episode, I think it's next week's episode…

Dr. DEVLIN: Oh, a preview.

Dr. LORDEN: …where he has a lot of knowledge about cars and the way modifications of cars are used for things like street drag racing and so on and so forth. So it turns out that, you know, he can bring a lot more to the table when he consults with his colleagues, Larry and Charlie, from other sides of campus. And I think he's going to enrich a lot of the action on the show, the sort of human-interest stuff to see more of the faculty colleagues that Charlie, the mathematician, has.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Keith Devlin and Gary Lorden, who were co-authors of "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs: Solving Crime with Mathematics," based on the TV show "Numb3rs" which is the E - and it has 3 backwards. Any - either of you two think of that or that's just the artistic department come up with?

Dr. DEVLIN: That was the television people who did that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DEVLIN: I wish I had thought of that. I think it was maybe Tony Scott that's behind this who was the executive producer…

Dr. LORDEN: When I first saw that in an e-mail from the public relations part of Caltech - I got an e-mail saying, well, you're head of the math department, maybe you want to come and meet with this producer. They're thinking of doing a pilot and want to do it at Caltech and so on and so forth, and the show is supposed to be called "Numb3rs" and with a 3 in it. And, of course, it wasn't backwards because it was just typed around an ordinary keyboard. And I looked at that and thought oh, gee, that's kind of hokey. And so when it turns out to be brilliant…

FLATOW: All right.

Dr. LORDEN: …because we're in the age of Google and…

FLATOW: There you go. Hang on. I've got to take a break. We have to take a break. We'll be right back in a short break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs: Solving Crime with Mathematics," with the authors Gary Lorden and Keith Devlin. And when I interrupted, you're about to give me the punch line of the story behind why "Numb3rs" - what you thought of the 3 in "Numb3rs."

Dr. LORDEN: Yeah, the brilliance of that conception is not only that it makes it sort of a catchy logo for the TV screen, but that in an age of Google, one of the things we really want to do with the show is encourage people, particularly students, who might, you know, be intrigued about some of the math on the show to go on the Internet and try to look up more about the Riemann hypothesis, for example, or the P versus NP problem or something like that that comes up on the show. And what they can do when they put in numb3rs with a 3 instead of an E is restrict all of their answers very readily on Google to being about the show or about our book, now, I would hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LORDEN: And with just an E, if you type in numbers into Google, I don't know how many millions of returns you get, but there's a lot of Web sites that use the word numbers without the 3 in it.

FLATOW: Let's go to the questions. Jolan(ph) in "Second Life" asks. This go right to the media, she says, I'm French and I watch "Numb3rs." Is "Numb3rs" often realistic about solving crime by mathematics? In other words, the central question, do real detectives use numbers like these or did - or anybody have the power - these geniuses, these mathematicians that you have on the show?

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah, I mean, you know, Gary mentioned, totally. Garry said that -my old mentors that the - there's a type - there's the whole thing you're certainly hyped and it's exaggerated in terms of the timescale and one person doing it. But if you take that away and you factor it back down to, in principle, could this mathematics be used to solve that crime, the answer is very often yes. It wouldn't take - it would longer than the 42 minutes and it wouldn't take one person. It might take six months and a team of people, but, by and large, with one or two exceptions, when you see mathematics presented in the show, when you see Charlie say, I'm going to use (unintelligible) influence to solve this crime and help you solve this crime - if you sit back and think of it, if you got mathematical knowledge, you think, yeah, actually that's certainly possible. So factor out the - all of the hype side, the stuff that's required to make it a fast-paced episode, and the answer is yes, it's believable.

FLATOW: Okay. Let's talk about one case, for example. Keith, you write in your book about the statistics for fighting crime, and one case in particular was really interesting. This was a nurse who seemed to have a lot of patients. Tell us about that one.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah. And several of the - most of the chapters in the book are actually based on episodes of "Numb3rs." But this is one where there's a real case that as far as you know hasn't really been reflected in the TV series. But of course, all the scriptwriters now have our book, and so I'm sure it's going to appear in the series.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DEVLIN: This was a case in the mid-1990s in Massachusetts, where there was a nurse in a Veterans Affairs hospital. She was usually on the night shift. And her colleagues noticed that there seem to be more cardiac arrests when she was on duty. You know, there was - suspicions were aroused. And the suspicion was that - it's almost like fire fighters who start fires because they like the exercise, the (unintelligible) like the fun of fighting fires. They thought that she would love the excitement of trying to save these people. And sometimes, she was successful in saving them; often, she wasn't. But they suspected that she was actually causing these heart attacks by injecting them with a drug in the first place.

So they looked at all the data - actually, eventually, they persuaded the state to put a grand jury together to investigate this - and they looked at the data. And sure enough, on the shifts when this person, Kristen Gilbert, was in charge of the ward, there were more deaths from cardiac arrests or more cases of cardiac arrests - some in deaths - some resulting in deaths, some not - than there were otherwise. The question was, was that just one of these flukes? Because these are small numbers, you know, you're talking about maybe one person, two people here, another couple the next month. So you're really only talking about six, seven, eight deaths. But it seems - the question is what is this - what is statistically significant? Was there something going on?

Simply, looking at the charts and graphing them isn't going to tell you that. You have to do a detailed statistical analysis. And indeed, the grand jury commissioned a statistician to analyze the data. And the results of that was the chances of that increase in cardiac cases being purely due to chance was less than one in 100 million. In other words, it was a virtual certainty that something was causing them. Whether she was causing them was another issue, that's what the court have been trying to do in the trial. But it was certainly wasn't just a random fluctuation. Someone or something had been causing them deliberately.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's talk a bit about something that you write about in the book. You write that - it has to do with the war on terror. And we know that the government has all kinds of data mining that it's doing. And you write that machine learning is, quote, "perhaps the single most important tool within the law enforcement community's data mining arsenal when it comes to profiling, enhanced catching or preventing criminals and terrorists." Can you tell us what machine learning is?

Dr. DEVLIN: Okay. That's - actually, the center that I direct at Stanford is actually the world's leader in doing that thing. It's where you - it's a branch of what was known as artificial - still is known as artificial intelligence. It means you have a computer program which you present lots of data, it could be data about - an obvious one is can you determine the profile of someone entering the country who's likely to be a terrorist?

So you look up lots and lots of profiles of people entering the country and you let the computer compare that data with a list of known terrorists entering the country. And it looks for patterns; it looks for hidden patterns to see if you can come up with a set of criteria of characteristics that would be - that would tell you that that person, when they're trying to enter the country, was likely to be a criminal.

So it's uncovering hidden patterns, but it's doing them by the computer itself examining the data. Human beings could do this well if they were faced with about 20 or 30 cases. But, you know, the immigration services have hundreds of thousands of data points to look out, and so you have to let computers find the patterns. It's not enough to expect a human being to find them.

FLATOW: Let's go to Tom(ph) on line 3. Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Hey. Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: How are you?

TOM: Great. Thanks for taking my call. I really love your show.

FLATOW: Thank you.

TOM: Yeah. I was wondering, now that the FBI is taking over from Blackwater regarding their CEOs and other important people, diplomats and so on in Iraq, do you think they would use supercomputers, higher mathematics to calculate the odds of, say, an ambush in any particular time or place in, you know, Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world?

Dr. DEVLIN: You know, the Defense Department was doing that long before 9/11. They've been using computer methods, mathematical methods to try and highlight likely targets of terrorist attacks. They've been doing that for a long time.

Dr. LORDEN: It's called threat assessment. And mathematicians - there were many thousands of them, PhD mathematicians, who are very high level - work for various agencies of the government and think tanks that worked for those agencies. And as Keith says, they've been doing all these kinds of assessments for a long time. And both Keith and I participated in classified work with some of those mathematicians that do it. And particularly since 9/11, the use of mathematical methods to fight terror is a very major effort within the U.S. government.

FLATOW: You wrote in your book that it had predicted at least of the site for 9/11 - the Pentagon as being a high-profile target.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah. That was actually an interesting case. There was small company in the Washington Beltway district with its small defense contract. It was commissioned by the Defense Department to develop a software system to try and produce one of these threat assessment matrices. And early in 2001, they ran this on test data and one of the targets that came right up to the top of the list was the Pentagon. And the irony is, with hindsight, is that when the people who developed that - this was a company associated with George Mason University - when they wrote up the reports of this, they actually said one of the targets that was found was the Pentagon.

Of course, you would expect this when you're running test data, and everybody dismissed it. And with 20/20 vision, you know, it seems to sort of second-guess it. If I've been in their place, I've had dismissed it too. But what it shows was that although people with obvious - we'll tend to dismiss things that's being too obvious or too - out of the realms of possibility, mathematics doesn't have any prejudices. That mathematics looked at the data and said the Pentagon is a high-risk target. And by golly, it turned out to be right within six months of that report being written.

Dr. LORDEN: Another great success - Oh, I'm sorry. I was going to say another great…

FLATOW: Sure. Go ahead.

Dr. LORDEN: …another great success in the book that we describe in a chapter called Connecting the Dots is the use of graph theory, network's link analysis and so on. And this is something that I know for sure, from firsthand experience, is used in counterterror work in the government. And we talk about a stunning success, where it was actually used to find al-Zarqawi, or at least people close to al-Zarqawi, who was the head of al-Qaida in Iraq. And that was the basis for ultimately taking him out with bombs.

So there are some really important successes. We can't obviously talk about the details in the book. But where the mathematical methods, some of which have been illustrated on the show, where you take points and lines - points are people; the lines are relationships between them or communications between them - and you construct what mathematicians call a graph or a network, and then you do all kinds of probabilistic analysis and all kinds of other analysis.

We described one in the book, where social network analyst in private practice as a consultant for corporations, a man named Valdis Krebs, did an analysis and published it on the Web after 9/11. From just publicly available data and some of the standard ways of determining who are the important people in a network, he was able to pinpoint Mohamed Atta, who played a central role in the 9/11 attacks.

FLATOW: When you say you can't talk about it, does that mean because you were actively involved in helping out here?

Dr. LORDEN: Well, both Keith and I have consulted with organizations that are involved in very highly classified research, and so we know firsthand that some of our mathematical colleagues are not just at universities - although a lot of people at universities like us have helped - but there are full-time expert mathematicians who are working on things like basing an inference, social network analysis and so on as we speak.

And when you see successes that are published in the media - or even sometimes you don't hear about them because they are not, you know, quite such striking figures as al-Zarqawi - a lot of those results depend upon mathematical, statistical, probabilistic data mining kinds of analyses. And so, the government gives grants to mathematicians at universities to work on methods for those things. So it's really a very large-scale effort.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Does any of that filtered down to the local level?

Dr. LORDEN: Yes. I was actually talking to somebody about the book just the other day in an interview, and she asked something about that. And I said, well, you know, it's like all kinds of other things. If you are dealing with Wal-Mart as a costumer, then you know that when you purchase something, it goes into their computerized database and they are able to do incredible things with it that help them determine where to put things in the aisles in the store and how to advertise and how to price and all those kinds of things.

When you go down to the mom-and-pop store on the corner, they may have a laptop but they're probably not using it to analyze your purchases, and I think it's similar with police. I've never actually consulted with police departments or even the FBI. I know from talking to some of the people associated with the show that, yes, they have used math on occasion, but surely not at the level that it's regularly used with mathematicians regularly working on cases for a very long period of time the way it is at the high level, for the National Security Agency or the CIA or so on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Can you ever get to the point where quantum physics, quantum mathematics might be useful to solve…

Dr. DEVLIN: Boy, I'm going to thought - went over to Gary, because I have no idea, and maybe Gary doesn't either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LORDEN: Well, yes. For example, one of my former students at Caltech, Peter Shor, is famous for, among other things, working on quantum computing. And we don't, as far as I know, physically have quantum computers yet. But my colleague, Professor Preskill, at Caltech and lots of others are concentrating a lot of research on that. And when we do have quantum computers, they're going to be among those deeply buried in the various agencies of the government machines - I assume the best ones, will be working on counterterror. So, yes, I think every possible tool, from theoretical physics or any other branch of science will be brought to bear.

FLATOW: Talking with Keith Devlin and Gary Lorden, author of "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs" on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, with just a little bit of time left. What would you like to do that you can't do, that they keep telling you no? Tell us what…

Dr. LORDEN: I would like to see - and I know David Krumholtz, the actor who plays Charlie, wonderful actor and he really loves doing the math and having it influence the audience. He's so proud of the fact, for example, that there is a program with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in partnership with Texas Instruments, where 48,000 high school and junior high math teachers are signed up and regularly receive, from a special panel that the NCPM set up, problem sets that they give their students keyed to the episodes of "Numb3rs," so that when a 14-year-old watches "Numb3rs" on a Friday night and comes to school the next week, they get math problems in class that are word problems about Agent Reeves did this and blah, blah, blah. So they really love it.

And what I'd like to see - and I know Krumholtz feels the same way - is more illustrations of how a math professor functions in the rest of their time on campus, not just working for the FBI, but teaching, you know, interacting with students. And there've been a few scenes like that in the history of the show, but we'd like to see many more of them. And I think it would be a wonderful opportunity to show the excitement of doing mathematics because students can portray that very well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And now that we're living in an era where you can watch these things whenever you want to, right on the Web site, you can assign stuff, you can make, you know, you can assign - if it's not for Friday night, some other night.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah, and because that technology only exists because of the mathematics behind it. I mean, let's not forget that the very computer is a product of mathematics of the 19th century and then into the early 20th century. And just adding to what Gary said, you know, I - lots of people say that they can't do mathematics. But if you simply think of how the human brain developed through natural selection - natural selection doesn't produce 5 percents of the brains of the population that can do mathematics and 95 percent that don't. It produces a spectrum of ability. And once you've got a spectrum of ability, any one who is motivated and wants to do something can actually do pretty - can do better at it than when they start.

And I think the key to mathematics is motivation, and that unpacks when you are talking to young people to it being cool. Young kids don't want to be seen doing something that's not cool. And try as though we might, people like Gary and I have never been able to succeed to make mathematics look cool. We look like mathematicians. Now, we've got Charlie, played by David Krumholtz, giving these wonderful, cool, sexy image to mathematics. And there's already evidence that's beginning to turn things around. And kids in school are saying, you know, it actually is cool to do mathematics. I'm interested in doing mathematics. I want to do it.

Then if you've got those pieces in place, there's nothing on Earth that will stop them becoming good at mathematics because they're all on the same spectrum of ability as everybody else.

FLATOW: Or maybe you should just spin it off and have a contest or a national math off of something based on "Numb3rs," you know, using the "Numb3rs" logo.

Dr. DEVLIN: I'll bet that's going to be fair to spinoffs for this. I mean, you know, Gary has already mentioned the huge NCTM project. I've used it in - I give courses for non-science majors at universities and colleges. I give talks in high schools. I often show clips from "Numb3rs" when I'm doing that. And it make - it does wonders for creating interest in the subject from groups who would historically and traditionally have thought of themselves and be thought of as not interested in doing mathematics and even worse, been classified as not capable of doing mathematics.

FLATOW: Well, Keith, Gary, thank you both for taking time to be with us today. And good luck to you.

Dr. DEVLIN: Okay, thanks. My pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Keith -

Dr. LORDEN: Thank you, Ira. It was great to be with you.

FLATOW: As always. Keith Devlin is executive director of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information. He's also NPR's math guy. And Gary Lorden is professor of math at Caltech and a math consultant to the television show "Numb3rs." The book is "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs: Solving Crime with Mathematics." Really interesting stuff, good reading - I hope you all pick up a copy of it.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.