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Peer Review

The Math Behind Numb3rs

by The Numb3rs Team


Overall Rating:

4.25 stars
Content Quality: 4 stars
Effectiveness: 5 stars
Ease of Use: 4 stars
Reviewed: Dec 01, 2009 by Mathematics
Overview: This site explores the mathematics behind the popular CBS detective series “Numb3rs”, which features a mathematician using applications of a wide range of mathematics to help his brother solve FBI cases. The website provides episode-specific material for season 6 (2009-10) with links to the complete season 5, and to a growing amount of material from earlier seasons back to the original in 2004.
Learning Goals: The TV series and cast have a stated goal of encouraging young people to consider mathematics as exciting and useful. This website provides background information on the specific math related to plot lines in the series. The main purpose is to entice students to explore mathematics in a variety of ways and perhaps reinforce the positive image created by the TV show.
Target Student Population: The site aims to attract viewers of the TV series and encourage them to explore the mathematics behind the show. The “cool” factor seems to attract students and provide effective motivation to explore material that they would not normally consider either of interest or within their mathematical capabilities.
Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills: None assumed although some of the links take you to sophisticated mathematics.
Type of Material: Browser pages with text, animations, video, interactive computations and embedded links.
Recommended Uses: Useful as a motivating tool to encourage anybody to consider mathematics in a new light. Good resource material for student projects. Good publicity material for the value and positive image of mathematics with the general public.
Technical Requirements: None

Evaluation and Observation

Content Quality

Rating: 4 stars
Strengths: On the main page for each season of the TV show, there is a summary of the plot line for each episode and a listing of the mathematics referred to in the story. Within each episode, there are visual demonstrations, interactive computations powered by Mathematica, and actual script segments from the TV show. A live glossary for mathematical terms links to Wolfram’s Mathworld site. In Season 5 (and to a limited extent in Season 6), each episode provides a link to a weekly puzzle which features a hint, a quotation from a cast member, and a solution.
Concerns: Despite the listing of math used in each episode, it’s not immediately obvious where or how it was used in the plot line – perhaps frustrating to some users.

Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool

Rating: 5 stars
Strengths: The major strength is probably the immediacy for an audience that likes to “participate” in current television shows. It will attract viewers that would never otherwise engage with topics from current or classical mathematics. The mathematical demonstrations are interspersed between actual segments of script from the shows and related links for “math used” are provided to appropriate items on Wolfram’s Mathworld site. For example the season 6 opening episode has links to the golden ratio, Fibonacci sequences and aperiodic tiling. The next episodes highlight confidence intervals, wavelets, “cakecutting”, triangulation and toroids.
Concerns: The site has the potential to contribute to the troubling philosophy that all education – and mathematics in particular – needs to be entertaining in order to have value to students.

Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty

Rating: 4 stars
Strengths: The site in general is a smoothly functioning website with powerful and attractive visuals. It encourages exploration.
Concerns: Some of the embedded videos don’t appear to run correctly. Presumably while the TV season is in progress, the material is being updated rapidly. It would not be easy to find a particular mathematical topic, but of course the purpose is to encourage browsing.