May 03, 2005

Math Skills for Hollywood Productions

Who said that a degree in math was not good way to break into Hollywood.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Harvard professor Jonathan Farley is an award-winning scholar, but he wouldn't mind being known as a Hollywood mathematician.

Inspired by the box-office success of math-themed movies like "A Beautiful Mind" and "Good Will Hunting," Farley figured there was a growing demand in Hollywood for experts who can make sure the numbers add up on the screen.

Farley and a colleague founded a consulting company to offer their expertise to television producers and filmmakers — and hit it big with his first client: consulting the CBS drama "Numb3rs," which stars Rob Morrow as an FBI agent who recruits his mathematical genius brother to help solve crimes.

Apparently there have been numerous mathematical errors made in television and film, one of the more famous movies out there serves as a good example.

Farley, 35, co-founded his company with Lizzie Burns, a London-based biochemist he met studying at the University of Oxford a decade ago. Farley said he and Burns are philosophically at odds over how mathematically accurate movies should be.

"To make a film really credible," Burns said, "it's important to get the science right."

Farley, on the other hand, said he knows filmmakers sometimes sacrifice scientific accuracy in the name of entertainment.

"I just think there's a way of making the science not look ridiculous, as you often find in many science-fiction shows and movies," he said.

Farley has recruited some of his colleagues, including Harvard postdoctoral fellow Anthony Harkin, to serve as consultants. Harkin said mathematicians love to police television programs and movies for errors. One of the most famous, he added, comes from "The Wizard of Oz."

"When the scarecrow gets his brain, he incorrectly states the Pythagorean theorem," Harkin said. "If any mathematician would looked at it, they could have easily fixed that flaw."

Someone out there is thinking "If I only had a brain. ;)

Farley gives high marks to the makers of "Numb3rs" for what he says is an accurate portrayal of how mathematicians work and interact with each other.

"Getting the math right is very important to our creators," said Andy Black, a researcher for the show. "We do want to have that kind of credibility."

After "Numb3rs" premiered in January, Farley e-mailed the show's producers and offered his services. He traded messages with Black, who agreed to start sending him copies of unfinished scripts. Farley won't disclose what his company is paid for their advice.

"Jonathan seemed very enthusiastic about pitching in," Black said.

Farley and Harkin check the scripts for errors, scribble suggestions in the margins and send them to Black, who passes them on to the show's head writers.

"He presents nice, concise suggestions," Black said. "It's up to the writers to implement them."

Farley said he objected to a scene where one of the main characters, an older mathematician played by Peter MacNicol, talks about his "brazen attack on the Lorenz invariance."

"I asked a string-theory friend, and he said it doesn't make sense," he said. "I told them, but they didn't change it."

The show also works closely with Gary Lorden, who chairs the math department at the California Institute of Technology. Lorden comes up with some of the formulas that Charley scribbles on chalkboards. In early episodes, one of his younger graduate student's hands filled in for those of the math genius, played by David Krumholtz.

Lorden said he sees the job as a lark, not a business opportunity.

"I grew up seeing virtually nothing about math in the popular media," he said. "I'm really hoping 'Numb3rs' spawns some imitators."

So math geeks fear not if you cannot find your way into a lab or teaching position you could find yourself working on a set. There are worse ways to earn a buck.

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