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Math Superheroes

06/02/08 5:55PM By Dan Rockmore
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(HOST) Commentator Dan Rockmore is a professor of math and computer science at Dartmouth, and - as many network TV series wrap up another season - he's reflecting on the one in which mathematics has a starring role.

(ROCKMORE) Superheroes are a part of growing up and when I was little Batman was one of my favorites. He was urbane millionaire Bruce Wayne in public, but when summoned by the police with a searchlight bat signal emblazoned against what seemed to be a perpetually cloudy night sky in Gotham City, he was transformed into a dark, brooding crimefighter. You see one of the reasons that I particularly liked Batman was that he was still human, but through smarts, and - well - a lot of money, was able to do super things.

Fast forward thirty years, and although I've largely stopped following superheros, I still do tune in every once in a while to watch a crime fighter that favors brains over brawn - and in particular, math over muscle. On Friday nights, millions tune in to the new hit TV show "Numb3rs" - now wrapping up its 4th season - to see how fictitious Cal Tech math professor Charlie Eppes is going to help his FBI agent brother Don Eppes solve the most recent crime mystery to hit the Los Angeles area.

One of the things that I like most about Numb3rs is that the writers seem to work very hard to have the math make sense. They contact mathematicians all around the country - including yours truly - asking them to take a look at the scripts so that they don't take too many liberties with the truth, even if not everything they do adds up. Among the several episodes that I've seen and the scripts that I've read, Charlie has used *game theory* to get one criminal to rat on his friends, used techniques from the mathematical study of epidemics to look for patterns in a crime spree, explained how prime numbers are a source of e-commerce security, has even shown how mathematical analysis can be used for forgery detection.

In a piece of beautiful crossover TV irony, mathematician Charlie is played by David Krumholz, who some people may remember for a one time role that he played on the old adolescent TV drama "Freaks and Geeks." As Charlie, he is a math prodigy grown into one of the most famous mathematicians of his day. But Charlie's not just a noodler of numbers - in the first episode we saw him roaring down a steep hill on a homemade streetcar racer and his love interests make up one of the continuing subplots.

So, Charlie is my most recent favorite TV superhero - and the great part of it is, that if I want to pretend to be him, I don't even need to buy a cape.
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