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Math in popular culture (Talk of the Nation/Science Friday)

  1. April 29, 2005
  2. Ira Flatow, Host

Copyright 2005 National Public Radio (R)
All Rights Reserved
National Public Radio (NPR)

SHOW: Talk of the Nation/Science Friday 3:00 AM EST NPR

April 29, 2005 Friday
LENGTH: 8401 words
HEADLINE: Math in popular culture
Well, when was the last time you curled up with a good book--I mean a good
math book? All right, maybe that's too much to expect, you know. Maybe a
math book--curling up with it is too much. But what if--if you've been
watching prime-time TV, curling up with--in bed, you may have been
unwittingly immersed in math made palatable. Names like Euler, Leibniz,
Fibonacci, Riemann have figured prominently in some of the hottest TV
series. They have had starring roles on the television drama "Numb3rs,"
which--listen to this: "Numb3rs" just beat out "Law & Order: Trial by Jury"
as the top show on Friday nights on television--a math program. And if
you've been paying careful attention, you may have seen math sneakily
featured in the adventures of "The Simpsons." And not so sneaky: movies like
"Good Will Hunting" and "A Beautiful Mind" have made math actually something
to talk about apres film over a double latte.
Pop culture is making mathematicians look better, but is it helping math
teachers motivate their students? April is Mathematics Awareness Month, but
you knew that, right? So it might be a good time to take a closer look at
the numbers. And if you'd like to talk about mathematics in your life, give
us a call. Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. We can't
balance your checkbook, but we will be able to talk about all kinds of other
kinds of math.
Let me introduce my guests. Keith Devlin is the author of the new book "The
Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius." He's also the executive
director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information. He's a
consulting professor of mathematics at Stanford and he--you might know him
as that Math Guy on "Weekend Edition" on NPR. He's in the studios on campus
Thanks for being with us, Dr. Devlin.
Dr. KEITH DEVLIN (Author, "The Math Instinct"): Good afternoon, Ira. Thanks
for having me back again.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Robert Osserman is professor emeritus at Stanford. He's also special
projects director at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute
. He joins
us from a studio at the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.
Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Professor ROBERT OSSERMAN (Special Projects Director, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute
): Thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here. Hi, Keith.
Dr. DEVLIN: Hi there, Bob.
FLATOW: There you go. We'll save you money on a phone call.
Sarah Greenwald is associate professor in the department of mathematics at
Appalachian State University. She joins us from the campus in Boone, North
Thank you for being with us, Dr. Greenwald.
Dr. SARAH GREENWALD (Appalachian State University): Thanks. I'm very pleased
to be here. And hello to everyone.
FLATOW: Well, hi. Keith...
Dr. DEVLIN: Hi there.
Prof. OSSERMAN: Hello, Sarah.
FLATOW: Keith, is math turning up in more places, or are we just, you know,
making that up?
Dr. DEVLIN: No, it certainly is turning up, and it's turning up in a lot of
places. I mean, I'd like to think that efforts by Bob and myself and people
like us have partly contributed to this. I think the biggest impetus was
1994 when Andrew Wiles solved Fermat's last theorem and just thrust
mathematics into the front pages of the newspapers and really made it a hip
FLATOW: Oh, "Good Will Hunting" could have done a--you know, that was pretty
good, and so was "Proof" and "Pi" and that play...
Dr. DEVLIN: You bet. Yeah, it's just part of--it's become part of the
culture in a much bigger way than it ever was before.
FLATOW: Bob, do you agree with that?
Prof. OSSERMAN: Oh, absolutely. It's interesting that--I've looked back in
the past and there have been isolated movies, plays and things, books, that
refer to math, but there's been an explosion in the last 10 years which is
quite remarkable.
FLATOW: And, Dr. Greenwald, you've written a really interesting paper--at
least one; I'm sure there are more of them--on something called Engaging
Students with Significant Mathematical Content from "The Simpsons." Now a
lot of people watch "The Simpsons," but you talk about at least one program
in "The Simpsons" where Bart excels in school and they send him to, you
know, a high-priced, high--influential math class.
Dr. GREENWALD: Yes, that's correct. And I should say that there are a lot of
writers with significant mathematics in their backgrounds working for "The
Simpsons," and so they naturally sneak some math into the backgrounds of the
FLATOW: Do they do it on purpose?
Dr. GREENWALD: Yes. I got a chance to talk to David Cohen when I was out in
California recently, and I'm working on an interview that will be on my Web
site eventually. And he said that on the show "Futurama," where he was the
head writer, he could set the tone, and since he was interested in math it
was pretty easy for him to wedge some references there. And, you know, "The
Simpsons" has so many different references related to many different fields,
so if you're interested in law or you're interested in something else, you
can find something related to your field. And mathematics is just one of the
things that you can be looking for in these different episodes.
FLATOW: What about female mathematicians, though? Do we see them cropping up
anywhere in popular culture?
Dr. GREENWALD: Well, on some shows like--that Joss Whedon had done--"Buffy
the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel"--the people that seemed to be good in
science and math were actually the women in those shows, so a little bit in
those shows. And "The Simpsons" poked fun at gender issues and
Dr. GREENWALD: ...on a recent episode. There was a joke about--that men were
no longer allowed to take mathematics in the future at Yale, and Lisa was
debating between taking `semistry' and `galgebra.'
FLATOW: Bob...
Prof. OSSERMAN: Can I pop in there and...
FLATOW: Please, Bob. Go right ahead.
Prof. OSSERMAN: What's interesting is many of the movies and plays feature
women mathematicians over the recent years. And, in particular, what I think
is the first big success in this line was Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," back in
1993. And it's a wonderful play that's been produced all over the place, and
the chief character, named Thomasina, starts out as a 13-year-old math
prodigy, an absolutely delightful, mischievous young woman. And I think that
partly set, you know, a precedent. But at any rate, there have been quite a
few places where women had leading roles.
I mention one other, which is an interesting one. The best foreign picture,
the Academy Award '95, was a Dutch film called "Antonia's Line," and that
featured a series of women, one of whom was, in fact, a brilliant
mathematical talent. So there are many examples in popular culture, too.
FLATOW: You know, but scientists, ever since before, maybe--after "The Nutty
Professor" have been portrayed as a nutty professor. Are mathematicians
doing any better at avoiding that stereotype?
Prof. OSSERMAN: (Laughs) Only partly. Unfortunately, that's still there.
But, as I say, one of the things that's wonderful about "Arcadia" is that is
not at all the model. This is somebody who is not nutty and who is just the
opposite. So we've had some of both, I would say.
FLATOW: Keith Devlin, are you the nutty professor?
Dr. DEVLIN: (Laughs) I don't think so, Ira. And, you know, one of the
things--you mentioned the TV series "Numb3rs" in your introduction, and one
of the things I think that's good about that is it--the lead character,
played by David Krumholtz--OK, he's a little bit better-looking than most of
us, but I can see in him a composite of five or six mathematicians that I
know very well. He's actually got it down pretty well in terms of a fairly
young, dynamic mathematician. That's--he's closer to the real image of
mathematics than the nutty professor, I have to say.
FLATOW: Well, Sarah Greenwald, do they act--do people in Hollywood actually
listen? Do they pay attention when--the writers, you know, about what real
mathematicians are like, or do they have this stereotype in their minds?
Dr. GREENWALD: Well, some of them are real mathematicians, actually, so...
Dr. GREENWALD: Ken Keeler wrote for "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," and he
has a PhD in applied math, and a number of other people who have masters and
bachelors in math or related fields and PhDs in related fields--so...
FLATOW: Well, obviously...
Dr. GREENWALD: ...they actually have firsthand experience.
FLATOW: ...they've gone to where they can make some money.
Dr. GREENWALD: (Laughs) That's right. So, you know, if you have a degree in
mathematics, you have a lot of different options, and one of your options is
comedy writing and, you know, there are all sorts of different options,
FLATOW: So they didn't have to talk people into doing these mathematical
things, is what you're saying.
Dr. GREENWALD: Not in "The Simpsons"...
Dr. GREENWALD: ...and "Futurama." It's, you know, one aspect of their
interest and they put those in different "Futurama" episodes. And...
Dr. DEVLIN: You know, Ira, we shouldn't really be too--I mean, I think
people are probably very surprised when they hear of someone being a
mathematician becoming a comedy writer, but professional
mathematics--really, it's a playful occupation. We earn our living by
playing. We play in a sandbox when we do mathematics. I mean, it's really
not that far away from the kind of playfulness you see in something like
"The Simpsons."
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me go--let me talk about the title of your book, "The
Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius."
Dr. DEVLIN: Uh-huh.
FLATOW: Why are--and you--but you put lobsters, birds, cats and dogs in
there. What is this...
Dr. DEVLIN: Right.
FLATOW: What are you talking about there?
Dr. DEVLIN: Right. You know, we have this image of what it is to do
mathematics, and that involves sitting with a paper and pencil and
scribbling. And that's certainly one way of doing mathematics, an incredibly
important way; it's led to all of today's science and technology. But if you
step back and say, `What is mathematics as a process?,' not only is it not
unique to people who use paper and pencil, it's not even unique to human
beings. There's all kinds of creatures who, as a result of evolution by
natural selection, have developed particular capacities--different
creatures--that are their survival strategies, that when we interpret in
human terms what they do to survive, the only interpretation we can put on
it is that they are doing natural mathematics.
FLATOW: But, of course, they don't know that. They don't call it that.
Dr. DEVLIN: Oh, no.
Dr. DEVLIN: They just find--I mean, when a bird migrates...
Dr. DEVLIN: ...it's just following its instinct. But our interpretation of
migration is doing trigonometry. That's the human description of finding
your way around by measuring angles and distances, which is exactly what
they're doing--their own instinctive behaviors.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there one animal that does it more than the others?
Dr. DEVLIN: Oh, yeah. My favorite one is the Tunisian desert ant,
Cataglyphis fortis. This is an amazing little critter. It lives in the
Tunisian desert, the sand deserts. It lives underground in a nest. This
little creature will come out of its nest and wander off across the
featureless sand, looking for food. It will wander maybe 300 meters back and
forth, zigzagging around. It'll end up maybe a hundred meters from the nest.
The moment it finds its food, it turns to face where the nest is, goes back
exactly the distance and pops down the nest. If--scientists have followed
it. If you move it when it finds the food, it will head off in exactly the
direction it should have done if it hadn't been moved, for exactly the
distance it should have gone, and then it will look around wondering where
home is. This creature, despite all of this zigzagging up to a hundred
meters away, knows at every instant where home is, what direction and how
far it is.
We humans can do that. There's a technique known as dead reckoning. It's
heavy-duty trigonometry. We can do it. The ancient mariners used to use it.
The NASA astronauts going to the moon used it as a backup system. Apollo 13
used it to get back after the initial crash, the initial accident on the way
to the moon. It's mathematics to us. The desert ant is doing its instinct,
but when we interpret it, the only explanation is it's doing dead reckoning,
and that's heavy-duty mathematics.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, it sounds to me like finding your car in a parking lot,
you know?
Dr. DEVLIN: You know, it's--there is, you know...
FLATOW: You know? It's an unconscious thing. Some people are good at it,
some people are not.
Dr. DEVLIN: Right.
FLATOW: And, you know, I just say to myself, `Just walk, you'll get there.'
And it works, you know?
Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I...
Prof. OSSERMAN: Most of the time.
Dr. DEVLIN: Right. Yeah. Of course, guys in particular--the main gender
difference here is that guys won't admit when they can't do this kind of
thing. You know, I've given this example of the desert ant to many people
over the last couple of years, three or four years, in fact, and the
standard objection is: Well, you shouldn't really call it mathematics. And
my response to that is, `Look, we have calculators and computers that we
classify as doing mathematics when they are simply routing electricity
FLATOW: Yeah. All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk
lots more about math with Keith Devlin, Robert Osserman and Sarah Greenwald,
and your questions. So stay with us. We'll be right back.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of opening to "Numb3rs")
Unidentified Man: We all use math every day, to forecast weather, to tell
time, to handle money.
Unidentified Man #2: To handle money.
Unidentified Man #1: We also use math to analyze crime...
Unidentified Man #2: Analyze crime.
Unidentified Man #1: ...reveal patterns...
Unidentified Man #2: Reveal patterns.
Unidentified Man #1: ...predict behavior.
Unidentified Man #2: Predict behavior.
Unidentified Man #1: Using numbers, we can solve the biggest mysteries we
FLATOW: Of course, if you recognize that music and those voices, you're
listening to the program "Numb3rs" on Friday nights, which we've just
discovered today has now edged out "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" as the
number-one show in prime-time TV on Friday nights. Here to talk about the
math featured in prime-time television on that show is Gary Lorden. He is
the math technical consultant for "Numb3rs." He's also a professor of math
and head of the mathematics department at Caltech in Pasadena. He joins us
by phone from his office.
Thanks for being with us, Dr. Lorden.
Dr. GARY LORDEN (California Institute of Technology): Thank you, Ira. It's a
pleasure to be on the program.
FLATOW: Now are you surprised by how well the show is doing?
Dr. LORDEN: I was initially a little bit, I guess because I'd been anxious
about it. But as it's rolled along, I'm no longer surprised. It seems like
math can be a hit.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, tell us about why you think math is a hit.
Dr. LORDEN: I think it's because the show--and I think Keith talked about
this in connection with David Krumholtz's role--humanizes the process of
doing math and helping other people--in this case, crime solving--by using
your mathematical capabilities. So it's real-world stuff. You see Charlie,
the math professor at a school modeled after Caltech, I'm proud to say,
that, you know, tries to help his brother. And I think the family thing is
wonderful. I think the woman graduate student who's about to get her PhD in
mathematics is wonderful and adds a lot to the show. And it seems real in
the sense that these are actual people, and their personalities are
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And as a math consultant--what does that mean?
Dr. LORDEN: Well, in general, I do a lot of consulting, particularly in my
specialty of statistics and probability, much of it for lawyers and
engineering firms and things like that, and I see what Charlie does on the
show as being like that, in that his brother comes to him with these various
complicated situations, and he's supposed to use math. And my role, then, as
the math consultant on the show is to sort of do Charlie's thinking for
them. And I don't do it alone. There's a young researcher for the show, Andy
Black, who has made good contacts around the country with mathematicians and
physicists and others. And so I'm the main consultant, but not the only one.
FLATOW: Right. Tell us how the math gets into the show. What is the process
that goes on there?
Dr. LORDEN: Well, it varies with the episode. On some episodes, the idea
came from sort of real-world crime solving, like on the first episode there
was this analysis of a hot zone where the rapist-serial killer was operating
from, his home or his work, and that's based upon a real-life crime-solving
technique that was developed by a man named Kim Rossmo, who wrote a thesis
on this sort of thing at Simon Fraser University in Canada, and has kind of
sold it, and his advice to police departments and other investigative
agencies. So it's real-world math, and they appropriated it for the show.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And do you have to basically--do you put in, `Well, this is
really too farfetched, you know, for math; you can't really do that'? Or you
come with even more crazy ideas for them?
Dr. LORDEN: Good question. Yes, sometimes it's a challenge, because the
script when I get it will say, `Charlie fills the board with equations,' and
then he proceeds to say a couple of lines about--that `This is where you
should look for'--whatever it is; the dirty bomb or the sniper or this or
that. And I scratch my head and say, `What do I do here?' And sometimes it's
a bit of a reach in the sense that if that were given to me in the real
world, I would be hard pressed to come up with, you know, a really strong
solution. But don't forget, Charlie is a superhero.
Dr. LORDEN: He's able to do everything. And so I'm really with the program
in the sense that when they say, `Charlie can do something,' I say, `OK,
we'll try to come up with how he does it.'
FLATOW: Something, though, struck me; I don't remember which episode it was,
but I caught the end of the program once. And one of the characters--might
have been Charlie--picked a flower out of a vase at the end and
described--`Do you know the petals on this flower go around? As they go
around in a circle, the follow a Fibonacci'--and it was a tremendously
cogent and clear explanation. Is that filler? Or--you know, it had nothing
to do with the episode, I don't think, but it was just a--you know, any
schoolteacher would love to have that little bit of video there.
Dr. LORDEN: That little bit I had no part it...
Dr. LORDEN: ...and I'd never heard of that before and never actually
validated it, but I assume the writers got it from a good source. But I
loved it, and David Krumholtz, the actor, loved it, and it was cut from the
pilot. That was the last scene of the pilot in the version that I was
expecting to be shot on the Caltech campus, and at the last minute they
decided to change that, but they made amends by working it into a later
episode. And for me, those end-of-show little sessions where Charlie and Don
and the father are having these little conversations and stuff are some of
the best parts, and they get to say little things like that.
FLATOW: Yeah. I--you know, those are--you know, as someone who's worked in
TV before, I can understand, you know, the different dynamics and tugs you
put for timing and--but there has to be some decision made by somebody who
says, `You know, we're going to leave this in just because it's beautiful
dramatically and it's great mathematics.'
Dr. LORDEN: Oh, absolutely. Well, the head writers, Nick Falacci and Cheryl
Heuton, who developed the show and wanted to do a show about
mathematics--the crime idea came later as a vehicle to get it into prime
time. But as they described it when they were at Caltech screening it and
wondering how the students and faculty would react--and, incidentally, we
all loved it--they said, `Yeah, we want to do a show about math, and it
couldn't be just all about math, so it had to have some other element, and
we thought of this...'
Dr. LORDEN: `...thing with the family and the brother over at the FBI,' and
so on. And so yes, they are very much inspired and turned on by the
possibilities of putting some interesting mathematical ideas into the show.
The game theory thing, where they wound up with Charlie, you know, doing
some practical coaching in game theory to try to get the three perps who
were in custody at the FBI--to try to break their silence. It's a famous
problem called the `prisoner's dilemma.' I loved that, and when the writers
invented that I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
FLATOW: Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255. We're talking about math in the media and
culture with Gary Lorden. Also joining us is Keith Devlin, Robert Osserman
and Sarah Greenwald.
Let me begin with you, Gary, ask you--because you're at Caltech, are
students coming up, saying, `I've seen that show. I want to be a
mathematician' now?
Dr. LORDEN: Well, topic's a little late. Our mathematical entry
FLATOW: `I'm getting out of the space program; I'm going into math.'
Dr. LORDEN: No, we don't expect to convert them at that stage, except by the
brilliance of our teaching, but we sure are seeing a lot of interest from
kids around, friends and family and so on, and I keep getting stopped on
campus by people telling me that, you know, their niece or somebody is
really excited about the show.
FLATOW: Right.
Dr. LORDEN: And I went to the convention of the National Council of Teachers
of Mathematics, which is math schoolteachers at all levels and professors of
math education, which is held in Anaheim at the Convention Center, right
nearby Caltech, and there were a thousand-plus people who were lined up
after the day's normal programs were over to watch a screening of "Numb3rs"
and to have me and the head writers and the two mathematicians on the show,
Charlie and Amita, played by David Krumholtz and Navi Rawat, and they were
like we were, you know, The Beatles coming out on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
FLATOW: And you were like, `No!'
Dr. LORDEN: And the teachers were beside themselves, telling stories about
how they used numbers to stimulate their students to be interested in
mathematics, etc., etc.
FLATOW: I would have said they're more like "Star Trekkies" coming--you
know, you have a whole new cult...
Dr. LORDEN: Yeah, that's right.
FLATOW: ...of people showing up to these things.
Dr. LORDEN: I think, in fact, that there's a dearth of popular culture
exposure of mathematics, with the exception that you've been discussing
Dr. LORDEN: ...you know, a few movies and so on. But when I was growing up,
I could turn on television and go to movies--television had just been
invented--and see all kinds of examples of chemists or physicists or
astronomers or whatever, but I don't remember seeing any mathematicians, and
certainly not any women mathematicians.
FLATOW: Right. Sarah Greenwald, are you seeing students in your math
department there saying, `Hey, this is--they've finally recognized us! Let's
get more mathematicians here'?
Dr. GREENWALD: Well, capitalizing on student enjoyment of pop culture can
alleviate math anxiety, energize shy and quiet students and provide a
creative introduction to an in-depth study of related mathematics. I don't
teach a course on math in "The Simpsons" or "Futurama"; they're just one of
the ways I help my students connect to course material. So I might
incorporate history or real-world applications or technology or something
related to their majors, and pop-culture references are just one of the ways
I use, and they love it, so they ask for more. And, you know, they start out
by laughing at the clips. I mean, the nice thing about using "Simpsons" and
"Futurama" is that it is funny, and they're familiar with "The Simpsons"
because it's been on so long--longest-running sitcom--and so they start out
laughing, but then their laughter helps them overcome their math anxiety and
they can really start to engage the mathematics and ask questions. And my
co-author, Andrew Nestler, and I on the "Simpsons" stuff have a bunch of
classroom worksheets and activities up on simpsonsmath.com.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Bob Osserman, what's your reaction to "Numb3rs"? Any--seen
people jumping for joy? No? Math on prime-time television?
Prof. OSSERMAN: Excuse me. Yes. I've seen a variety of reactions, both
positive and lukewarm, but...
FLATOW: Give me the lukewarm ones. What, are people saying, `Oh, this is
Prof. OSSERMAN: Well, you know, it's the same...
FLATOW: `...a shame that our community is involved in this'?
Prof. OSSERMAN: (Laughs) No, it's not that. It's always worrying that it's a
distortion of the way mathematics really works and so on. It's more that
kind of thing. But I do have a comment on this question you just asked about
`Are you seeing students react and say "I want to go into math"?' I think
one of the main effects of it is not directly on the students, but on
parents and teachers and the culture in general, because I believe one of
the main problems at all levels is that kids come to school with very
negative attitudes about mathematics that they get from their parents, their
siblings, their surroundings and, unfortunately, even many of their teachers
in elementary school, who are teaching the subject but not enjoying it and
not conveying the positive aspects.
So I think, in the long run, what's going to be most important is changing
this basic attitude toward math, and that's where I'm most hopeful.
FLATOW: Yeah. Keith Devlin, any reaction?
Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah, you know, it's--it's possible to take any one episode of
"Numb3rs" and sort of nitpick it. I mean, Gary mentioned about the episode
of the `prisoner's dilemma'; you could say, `Well, what was portrayed
actually wasn't the "prisoner's dilemma" and it'--but in principle, it was
in the right ballpark of mathematics, and it got the general idea. So the
fact that you could pick holes mathematically in each little bit, I think,
is irrelevant. This is a fun fiction program. It's OK if the mathematics is
just right in spirit, because what we're trying to--we're not trying to
teach mathematics, right?
Dr. DEVLIN: We're trying to entertain people in a way that makes mathematics
culturally very acceptable, and nobody's doing that.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Jesse in Ann Arbor. Hi, Jesse.
JESSE (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.
JESSE: Well, a couple of things. First, I think this show "Numb3rs" sounds
great, you know. I haven't watched it yet, but, you know, I think it's part
of that general, you know, bringing back some kind of golden age of
television. You know, we've seen from, you know, "Law & Order" and "West
Wing" and now "CSI," young people getting interested in, you know, subjects
that don't typically get a lot of attention on popular culture. But there
was a "Simpsons" quote that I particularly like, one of my favorite math
quotes, where Homer, the father, has, you know, had a brain operation, he's
very intelligent, and he says to his religious neighbor, Flanders, `I was
working on a flat-tax proposal, and I accidentally proved that there was no
God.' So--relevant on so many levels for the news this week.
But, you know, my question was, you know, on the preternatural nature of
math, if you will. It seems like, you know, psychologically, you need to
distinguish figure from ground in order to have what constitutes as
perception or vision. And on an anthropological level, or almost
epistemological level, we, as humans, have a tendency to differentiate and
distinguish between one object to another. And I wonder if that plays into
why counting and math and, you know, all the manifestations of it so kind
of, you know--it's part of the structure of our mind and reality that math
is so encoded in, you know, every animal and everything that kind of has to
interact in a three-dimensional world.
FLATOW: Hang on. I've got to get a reaction from Keith Devlin, if he dares
to react to that. I have to remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow; this is
Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah. No, and in fact, that's what my book "The Math Instinct"
is all about. It's saying that this stuff is built into living creatures.
Creatures that move have to have built-in spatial reasoning. There are lots
of creatures have built-in numerical ideas behind the way they operate. All
that's really different with humans is about 3,000 years ago, we found
another trick. We found a way of sort of taking that out of the natural
world, doing it in an artificial, formal way that's proved to be extremely
useful, but there's still all of this other stuff out there. It's part of
us. It's part of everyone.
You know, in the book, I give examples where scientists have followed people
around in their everyday life, and people, when faced with challenges that
involve numbers and mathematics, do just fine in a real-world context. But
if you take the mathematics they do in the real world and present it to them
as a piece of mathematics, their accuracy will typically drop from about 98
percent in the real world to as low as 35 percent if it's in a math class.
FLATOW: Yeah, that's what we talk--I think that's true of just anything
about mentioning the words `science' or `math.' You say, `Do you like
science or math?' I hate it. But if you then go and parse it out, you know,
what these pieces are about these things, they love it.
Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah. I mean, people--you know, and baseball fans...
Dr. DEVLIN: ...have no trouble with baseball statistics.
FLATOW: That's true.
Dr. DEVLIN: And baseball statistics is pretty heavy-duty mathematics.
FLATOW: Absolutely.
Bob, do you think people realize how many times a day they encounter math in
their life?
Prof. OSSERMAN: I'm afraid not. You know, it's one of those things that's
very hidden and below the surface and not talked about. Every time you
Google somebody or something on the Web, I mean, there's--all the search
engines use very interesting mathematics. And how many people are aware of
that? I suspect close to none. And, you know, it's absolutely everywhere.
Every time you get a CT scan or MRI, these all use mathematics. Whenever you
send a picture over the Web or some way, it gets digitized and coded and
compressed. You know, it's just absolutely everywhere, and people simply
don't realize the extent to which it's used. In fact, every time you use a
computer for anything, it's based on what mathematicians and logicians have
done to invent the modern computer and show all the things that you can do.
And this is all math-based.
FLATOW: And was there one period in history where mathematicians were
revered more than any other period?
Prof. OSSERMAN: You know, there have been various periods in various
places--I mean, even in current times. I have to say, I just heard the
founding director of MSRI--Chern is his name, S.S. Chern---was from China,
and he spent most of his career in America and went back to China, and just
died a few months ago. I was told that 10,000 people attended his funeral.
He was a national hero in China, and he was a mathematician. He was not--you
know, some mathematicians go on and become politicians or administrators,
but he and another leading mathematician, Hua, H-U-A, in China were both
just national heroes and definitely revered.
But the time I always think of is back in France around 1800,
that--particularly during and after the French Revolution, when the idea was
to revolutionize everything, mathematicians were heavily involved in
introducing the metric system, figuring out voting systems. And then later
on, under Napoleon, his inner circle included many leading mathematicians
and scientists.
FLATOW: All right, Bob--yeah.
Prof. OSSERMAN: So that was one--yeah. That was one period.
FLATOW: Hold that point because we have to take a break. We'll come back
with Bob Osserman and the rest of our guests, so stay with us.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
We're talking this hour about popular math. Oh, is that an oxymoron? No, I
don't think so. My guests are Keith Devlin, the author of the new book "The
Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius," along with lobsters,
birds, cats and dogs; Robert Osserman, professor emeritus at Stanford; Sarah
Greenwald, associate professor in the department of math at Appalachian
State University; Gary Lorden, professor of math at Caltech and adviser to
"Numb3rs" on television. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.
Sarah, when students come to you in a math class, are they naturally, I
would imagine, just fearful of math?
Dr. GREENWALD: Yeah, well, I teach a intro to mathematics course for
non-majors, a liberal arts math course. And a lot of them in interest
surveys that I do in the course report that they're very afraid of math and
they have, like, an emotional block. And I think it was Bob that talked
about this, that they had had some negative experience somewhere along the
way, and they just feel like they can't do it. Society has also told them
it's OK not to be good at mathematics.
FLATOW: But when you say negative experience, you mean there's an actual
some point where somebody has scared them so much that they're never going
to attempt it again?
Dr. GREENWALD: Well, one of the things I ask them to is think back to the
first place where they had something that was destructive to their
mathematical self-confidence and write about it, and the idea being that,
you know, if they think about it, maybe that'll have them thinking more
about how they do math. And yeah, some of them report there was some
specific incident, whether it was a teacher or a parent or something else
that happened that then they just felt like they couldn't do math from that
point onward.
FLATOW: Do you think--and I'll ask all of you this question. Do you think
the fact that we are seeing a resurgence in math now on television, we've
talked about it in films, in Broadway plays--do you think that our national
leaders might think, `Gee, this might be the start of something big; you
know, we should encourage this and find some leadership there'?
Dr. GREENWALD: Well, I hope so. I mean, you know, as Bob pointed out, math
is everywhere around us in lots of different things that we do. And, you
know, I really hope that pop culture references can help people identify
more with mathematics, with mathematicians, and say, you know, in society
this is important and this is something we shouldn't just accept as OK for a
bunch of our students to not be good at, but really they need to be able to
do mathematics because it's out there.
Dr. DEVLIN: You know what? I'm not sure if our public leaders are going to
go public and say that, but in private, they certainly seem to know that
because since 9/11, homeland security has provided an enormous incentive for
a lot of mathematicians to get involved in counterintelligence work. There's
a huge number of mathematicians now working in the homeland security arena.
FLATOW: Bob Osserman, it's not very expensive to do math, is it? You need a
pencil, a chalkboard, your head, something like that.
Prof. OSSERMAN: Yeah. I must say, it's perhaps the biggest bargain out
there. You don't need large colliders or big telescopes or anything of that
sort to do mathematics. And I might add that long before 9/11, that the NSA,
the National Security Agency, has hired, I think, more mathematicians than
maybe anybody else in the country. And one of the great revelations fairly
long after World War II was the incredibly important role that mathematics
had in breaking the German secret code for the Enigma machine, which they
thought was unbreakable.
And so certainly, as Keith says, part of our government is very well aware
of the importance of mathematics. If that will be reflected in adequate
funding and public statements remains to be seen.
Dr. GREENWALD: Well, at the moment, public funding for mathematics is down
in certain areas. So, you know, hopefully, there are people on Capitol Hill
that are trying to change that, you know, for math and science. But the
picture doesn't look so good right now, not funding. And...
FLATOW: I'm not even going to get into the No Child Left Behind debate. So
don't egg me on here.
Patricia in San Mateo, California, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
PATRICIA (Caller): Hi. I wanted to make a couple of comments. But my main
comment is, I used to be a middle school math teacher, and one of the most
frustrating things I encountered--even now as a tutor, I don't teach
full-time anymore--is there are so many students who are, you know, quite
bright, and they can see relationships, they can figure out how to solve a
problem, but they give up and have a really hard time because they can't do
the basic math, and they don't know what to do, and they just get scared
off. And the whole expectation of having no homework and no practice when
kids are learning the basic additions and their multiplication time table, I
think, hurt a lot of our students and turned them away later on, not in
higher math even; even just middle-school math. They won't do it because it
takes them so long to do a simple problem that just requires, you know,
three steps of basic arithmetic. And I think that's really sad.
FLATOW: Is that the fault of the teacher?
PATRICIA: I think it's more of a parent expectation and maybe a societal
expectation. A lot of it also is--like, one of your guests mentioned earlier
that elementary teachers, a lot of them don't like math, they never did well
in math, and so when they have to teach all different subjects and they
could choose to teach social studies or reading over something that they
never liked, they spend very little time on math. And...
FLATOW: But, I mean...
PATRICIA: ...that hurts our students, too.
FLATOW: Yeah. I'm intrigued by--you said that they get the concept, but they
can't do the math or they can't do the arithmetic there.
PATRICIA: Yeah. So, you know, when they have--a lot of teachers now in
middle school even will let them use calculators.
FLATOW: Right.
PATRICIA: And so that helps a little, but then when you take the calculators
away, these students just lose confidence all of a sudden...
PATRICIA: ...simply because they think they can't do it.
FLATOW: Sarah Greenwald, any comment?
Dr. GREENWALD: Yeah. I mean, I would say I see that at the college level
also and that, you know, slowly, a lot of my students tend to respond. And,
you know, they don't come out of the course loving math necessarily. But at
least they appreciate it and they kind of get over some of their anxiety and
are able to really excel in certain areas. So I have some people that are
actually very, very good in math that just were afraid, and then once they
realized, oh, you know, I just need to sit down and spend time and do
examples and...
Dr. GREENWALD: ...you know, then yes, I can do it.
FLATOW: But Patricia's saying that the kids--they're so low, the expectation
of these kids is so low that they don't push them to do any better. Right,
Patricia? Is that what you're saying?
PATRICIA: Yes, exactly. And then a lot of people nowadays--also, one of your
guests mentioned--they expect teachers to entertain the students. So if a
teacher can't make math exciting and fun such that the kids are jumping up
and down about it, they think that the teacher's not doing a good job. And,
you know, kids kind of pick up on that from their parents. And so they think
that math is boring or math is hard. And a lot of parents--their first thing
they say to me when they first meet me at the beginning of the school call
year, will say, `Well, you know, I really hope you can, you know, help in
this year. I was never good at math, so I won't be of any help.'
Dr. GREENWALD: And I think it goes beyond that, right? The parents saying,
`I am not good at math'--that gets conveyed to the student, and then the
student says, `Well, I'm not going to be good at math, either.'
FLATOW: Yeah. Why should I if my parents aren't good?
Dr. DEVLIN: You know, I think we can learn...
FLATOW: Go ahead.
Dr. DEVLIN: I think we can learn a lot by watching kids learn to skateboard.
I mean, you watch kids learn to skateboard--it's long, it's painful, it's
tedious, they bruise their elbows and everything. They continue through all
of this pain for two reasons: one, it's a social activity that they enjoy,
and two, they can see people who do it well, and it looks really cool.
The problem we have in mathematics is, yes, there's the painful
process--there's no easy way or route there--but when you've got it
mastered, boy, there's some very cool stuff you can do with it. And this is
why when "Numb3rs" first came out, I actually jumped on a plane and flew
down to Los Angeles and met Cheryl and Nick that were co-producing this new
series and said, `Go for it, you guys, because you can help provide this
cool image that will motivate people to get through the painful part that's
inevitable to get to that stage.'
Dr. LORDEN: I agree. I think, Keith, that your point about "Numb3rs" is it's
the only game in town right now on prime-time TV, with the exception of
occasional references that we all love in "The Simpsons." And I think that
could be enormously productive, especially if, in the typical TV fashion,
"Numb3rs" gets picked up--someone mentioned it's winning Friday
night--10:00, Friday nights has never been so good for CBS in the last 10
years or so, I understand. If television does what it usually does and picks
up on ideas, maybe it won't all be about lawyers and cops and doctors...
Dr. LORDEN: ...and there'll actually be some physicists and biologists and
mathematicians on in prime time. "CSI" has done something in that
FLATOW: Well, or...
Dr. LORDEN: ...and now "Numb3rs" can push it further, I think.
FLATOW: Or we might see the "Gilmore Girls" learning math a little bit more.
Dr. LORDEN: That would be good.
FLATOW: You know? So they...
Dr. LORDEN: They could be taught to use computers on screen. That would be
FLATOW: (Chuckles) They don't know how to use computers? Gary, do you find
your teaching skills come in handy when you have to talk to the writers and
influence them about, you know, this a hard problem, but we can show it,
people will understand it, and a little lightbulb will go on?
Dr. LORDEN: Oh, yes. Everything I do is teaching, even in my family. It's
really true that there's a cultural difference between people who have done
not necessarily just math as their major in college, but math or engineering
or science. And when we're talking about math and wanting to promote it in
education in this country, I think we have to think about it in a broader
term. Math is sort of the entree to a whole range of fields, for example,
that students come to Caltech to study. And those are the fields that aren't
emphasized enough in this country. And that's why Bill Gates on NPR this
morning was heard to say that Microsoft's putting more money into developing
resources in China and India and other places to get the kinds of engineers
and mathematicians and computer scientists that they need.
Dr. LORDEN: And so I think the big deal is not so much, you know, math per
se, but that using math is cool and using math does things in the world, and
suddenly to convey that the ability to do mathematics is going to give you
the entry to a whole range of careers and opportunities that math phobia
will keep you out of.
FLATOW: Well, you know, C.P. Snow wrote about this in the '50s with "The Two
Dr. LORDEN: That's right.
FLATOW: And it doesn't seem to have changed much, except getting wide. It
got narrowed down a little bit during the space race and kids were taking
math and engineering and whatever and science in school. Now we've gone back
to this giant cultural divide where people look at each other as nutty, you
know, if they like math.
Dr. LORDEN: And the writers on "Numb3rs" are very aware of that. And they
know that they don't know math. And so they turn to people like me and other
people who've helped with the show to give them ideas about how they can
change little things to, you know, make them more realistic. And actually
they love the idea that the show at least whets your appetite.
Dr. LORDEN: As Keith said, you can't do much in one or two lines of dialogue
or a quick shot of a blackboard. One of the PhD students at Caltech, David
Grinkowitz(ph), who worked on the show in some of the early episodes, spent
a full day writing mathematics on 17 blackboards so that the P vs. NP
problem, which figured prominently in one of the early episodes, could be
realistically displayed, that Charlie was supposed to be retreating into his
father's garage to work on. And those 17 blackboards are in the episode, but
on average 4.1 seconds each. And so, yeah, you're only getting a little
taste. But I think the image is what counts, no pun intended.
Prof. OSSERMAN: Can I say something on that?
FLATOW: Yes, go ahead, Bob.
Prof. OSSERMAN: Yeah. I'm not so sure about--excuse me--about the cultural
divide getting worse. I think one thing that's happened in recent years,
besides these movies and films we've talked about, is there have been many,
many very good books about math. You know, Keith has written a number
besides the one that you mentioned. One of my favorites is "Mathematics: A
New Golden Age," that he wrote a while ago. And I've written one on math and
cosmology. And there are three books on the Riemann hypothesis, which nobody
thought could be done. And these books are very successful. And then books
about--well, about the solution of Fermat's last theorem and so on.
And so I think there has been a much wider acceptance, a willingness to read
books about mathematics by people who are not normally likely to do that
kind of thing.
And one other example, by the way, sort of in the opposite direction from
"Numb3rs," which is that people don't realize that perhaps "Toy Story" and
"Finding Nemo" and all these big Pixar hits--there's a lot of mathematics
that gets used there to make popular culture...
Prof. OSSERMAN: ...and, you know, to produce these shows. So I'm not so sure
that the divide is worse.
FLATOW: All right. I'm willing to reconsider.
We're talking about math this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from
NPR News.
Got a few minutes left. Gary, are you going to run out of topics of math or,
you know, you got a few more tricks up your sleeve?
Dr. LORDEN: We all are very excited about the prospect for a second season.
We should find out in a couple of weeks. And I think it's, as a
statistician, about 99 percent confidence that I would have in having a
second season. And therefore, we will have a few months before they actually
go into major production of episodes. And I'm hoping to have some of the
writers and the new writers they're hiring come out to Caltech and talk to
me and colleagues in other departments. And Andy Black, the researcher on
the show, is going to set up something with people around the country. I'm
actually writing an article for the American Society Bulletin to talk about
my work on the show and encourage other mathematicians and scientists to get
involved. The hope is that we can have a fertile exchange of ideas where
we'll have, you know, more challenging, more interesting episodes from the
point of view of exposing people to the ideas about mathematics and science.
FLATOW: Do you think, though, there might be spin-offs where you could come
up with a board game for kids, you know, to use from the school and have a
crime that you can solve, and show them how it's solved with math in their
own classroom?
Dr. LORDEN: Sounds like a great idea. Let's work on it after this program.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: People have asked me about that, actually. I've thought about it a
Well, so we're pretty confident then that math may be in a renaissance, huh?
All of you believe that?
Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah...
Prof. OSSERMAN: We do.
Dr. DEVLIN: ...I mean, I know from whenever I go on "Weekend Edition" with
Scott Simon and do my little five- or six-minute pieces, we always get a
nice little bounce of mail. And there's--I mean, I just know from doing that
for over 10 years that there's an enormous amount of interest out there in
mathematics. Not that people want to do mathematics or become good at it,
but they're just interested in it in an observer sort of a fashion.
FLATOW: Yeah. All right, gentlemen. I want to thank you--and ladies. Thank
you for taking time to talk with us. We certainly--more interesting than I
think a lot of our listeners thought it might be.
Keith Devlin is author of the new book "The Math Instinct: Why You're a
Mathematical Genius"; Robert Osserman, professor emeritus at Stanford
University; Sarah Greenwald, associate professor in the department of
mathematics at Appalachian State University; and Gary Lorden, professor of
mathematics at Caltech and adviser to "Numb3rs." Thank you all for taking
time to be with us today.
Dr. LORDEN: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Dr. GREENWALD: Thank you.
Dr. DEVLIN: My pleasure.
FLATOW: Have a good weekend.
FLATOW: And if you messed any of the references--we made a lot of them, a
lot of references today on SCIENCE FRIDAY--you can surf over to our Web site
at sciencefriday.com. Also we'll make teaching curricula out of this math
show, as we do out of all our SCIENCE FRIDAY broadcasts. And you can check
them out and download them, press on the `teachers' button--also podcasting
SCIENCE FRIDAY or listen on RealAudio or audible.com; or send us mail to
SCIENCE FRIDAY, 55 West 45th Street, Fourth Flour, New York, New York 10036.
Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
LOAD-DATE: April 30, 2005