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TV Interview: ...Numb3rs... Continues to Make Math Chic

Creator Examines the Success of the Show and Bemoans Loss of MIT Setting

Jillian Berry


CBS Fridays at 10 p.m.

The hit CBS series “Numb3rs” is entering its third season this Friday. I talked with Co-creator and Executive Producer Cheryl Heuton about the success of the math-based show. Here is that interview.

The Tech: How did you come up with the idea for “Numb3rs”?

Cheryl Heuton: My husband [Nicolas Falacci] and I, who is my writing partner and co-creator, had been reading books about math and science for at least a decade, and enjoying them. The characters of mathematicians and the rigors that mathematicians learn are interesting when you combine them with people who don’t have that rigorous training. We tried to figure out a way to make a TV show based on that.

TT: Did you like math when you were in school?

CH: I had a very difficult time with math starting in fourth grade. I won’t say I disliked it, but I had a lot of trouble understanding it, and I remember in high school I would end up in these really advanced math courses, not by my choice — my counselors always thought I should be in them. I would really get lost in them. I remember in 11th or 12th grade, in analysis, just really having a meltdown over irrational and imaginary numbers, and thinking, “if they’re imaginary, why are we even learning them?” I think I missed the point of the class. I always liked the logic of it ... that you could use it to prove something new.

TT: Were you surprised by the success of the show, not only with the general population, but also among people in mathematics?

CH: Yes, by both of them. We were more surprised by the general public. We were thinking early on this is fun, this is great, but it all might come crashing down as soon as they test it in front of audiences. They might say, “I hate math; why would I watch this show about math?” So we had this idea that math and science books have made it to the best-seller list … we thought this meant something. So when we tested this, we had people who said openly, “we love the math. We would watch the show again for the math.” So that was a huge moment for us.

Then, we really didn’t know what real mathematicians and real math students were going to think; we knew at some level it was always going to seem a little simplistic or a little exaggerated because they work so intensely in it. When we first showed the pilot, we showed it at Caltech, and we were thinking, “if anyone is going to ridicule it …” But the reception there was very warm; they were very supportive and have been supportive ever since.

TT: Do you come up with math concepts and then stories, or do you decide on the stories and then find math that applies to it?

CH: It goes both ways, and it kind of depends on the writer and how we are generating the ideas. Sometimes we take a crime that’s been in the news, and we say “this is a very interesting crime,” and we say to our math consultant or our researchers, “are there applications that could address the issues in this crime?” One of our writers just loves to explore math and find what he considers a very cool application, and then he comes up with a crime that you can apply that to, so it works both ways.

TT: How realistic are the mathematical models?

CH: The math is all … applications. We have often applied them in ways that haven’t been applied in real life. On the show they tend to be more efficacious and more quick than they would be in real life. All of it is fairly plausible, some of it is exactly. It’s funny; some of the things that have been most questioned by mathematicians is stuff that has actually been done and is completely plausible. And sometimes when it’s really been out there, no one has said anything.

TT: Have you considered having real mathematicians guest star on the show?

CH: We’d love to. There are two issues with that. One is we’re trying to find the real mathematician who’s an actor. The second one is … the network is concerned that they want more people to watch the show, and I’m not sure there is any one mathematician who has enough [public profile]. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to address in the show. Maybe we need to put one on.

TT: Why did you choose Caltech instead of MIT?

CH: [Laughs] We originally tried to choose MIT for the show. We originally set the show in Boston, and Charlie was going to be a professor at MIT. We contacted MIT, and their answer was they’re not in the film and TV business, which was kind of disappointing. We actually shot the first pilot in Boston, and we ended up reshooting it. When we decided to reshoot it, we thought we would relocate to LA for financial reasons, so we wouldn’t have to fake a city we were not in. If you’re going to LA, Caltech is right there, so we approached Caltech, and they were kind of open to the whole idea, and they’ve become more excited as we go along. We do love both cities. As you know, or I hope you know, one of our cast members, Dylan A. Bruno ’93, is an MIT graduate in environmental engineering.