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'Numb3rs' counts on math expert


October 21, 2007|Susan King

Gary Lorden

Official job: Professor of mathematics at Caltech

Hollywood job: Math consultant on "Numb3rs," CBS' FBI-centric series in which mathematics is used to help catch criminals and solve crimes. Rob Morrow plays the FBI agent; David Krumholtz plays Charlie, his math-genius brother who teaches at college and helps him with cases. And Lorden works out the actual math. (Lorden and Keith Devlin, National Public Radio's "Math Guy," have also collaborated on the new book "The Numbers Behind Numb3rs."

Job description: "It is episodic, so that in the course of 10 days or so, they work on a particular episode in the sense of shooting and so on. That creates a schedule a little ahead of the shooting where they have to finalize the script. And not only what's in the script, but in the case of this show, there is a whole bunch of math that has to be finalized. I have got to stay up late tonight so that at tomorrow's meeting with the producers, art department and writers, which I don't attend but the researchers that I work with attend, they will basically present 10 or 12 or 15 pages of math that I fax the researchers, often at 2 in the morning, which gives them what goes on the screen."

The whole equation: "There are two kind of [ways math appears on screen in the show]. A 'Charlie vision' is suppose to be what is going on inside Charlie's head when he's thinking. So there will be equations and graphics. An 'audience vision' is sort of a mini-explanation of something. It involves mathematics, of course, and there are some kind of equations and number and curves that are being drawn. There are always a couple of those in the episodes. There are also computer screens that have stuff on them, and sometimes, as in the episode I have been working on, the content of the computer screen gets projected on a big plasma screen and Charlie can stand in front of it and give a talk.

"Yet there is another place mathematics appears, either blackboards or clear white boards. And finally, the content is in the dialogue."

X equals "no": "Sometimes my main role is as a naysayer. I say, 'This math really isn't any good for what's happening in the plot here. It wouldn't be applicable. It's not something we should use.' I suggest some other thing they could use."

Teamwork: "They do have other mathematicians and scientists involved in episodes. I have helped them rope in other Caltech professors. There was one episode dealing with voting fraud where a woman gets killed. And one of my colleagues, a social science professor who is a real expert on voting fraud, collaborated with me. All TV shows [hire experts] to some extent. The difference on 'Numb3rs' is the content about math and science and social science and engineering is much more central to the show."

Crime solving: "A lot of the [math] is based on actual experiences I have had consulting not with television but with lawyers on legal cases, with groups that work with the government on secret research. Forty years I have been consulting in all sorts of ways. I never imagined that I would consult for a TV show.

"I have never solved a crime. The book that just came out that Keith Devlin and I wrote is exactly the subject we were tackling -- what's the gap between what you see on the screen in 'Numb3rs' and what goes on in the real world? The types of math we talk about in the various chapters have been mentioned on the show, and sometimes the way the math was actually used in real-life cases. The math [in real life] is used regularly by agencies of the government and police to do things, but they are not just focused on one case."

Working with the actors: "Krumholtz is very dedicated. . . . I first met him in the summer of 2004 when they came to shoot [the pilot] at the Caltech campus. When I met him and the other actors, Krumholtz told me he had already come around the campus. So he was doing research to be like one of us by watching. But one of the things the producers and writers wanted was to give background for the actors on the show and the writers."

Celebrity: "One of the fun things about being an insider on the show, some of the students just get a kick out of that. So I kid about it when I give a lecture. . . . But actually for me in many ways, it's my Andy Warhol making good on the 15 minutes of fame thing. In 40 years of teaching at Caltech I don't think I have had a student ask for my autograph until I was involved in the show. Actually, it was after a public lecture a couple of years ago. The students came up and asked Krumholtz and other people who were there to sign their program, and they asked me too. I signed autographs for Caltech students!"

Age: 66

Resides: Pasadena

Union or guild: no

-- Susan King

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