Tuesday, June 28, 2011



FUTURAMA mentions the Banach-Tarski Paradox! In the June 23, 2011 episode Professor Farnsworth invents a Banach-Tarski-Dupla-Shrinker which takes a blueprint of an object (like a sweater or Bender) and some matter and then produces two smaller but otherwise identical copies of the original. The real Banach Tarski Paradox takes one object and produces two of the exact same type. The writers might have felt that was just a little too weird. See here for a full description of the episode. The episode aired on thursday, and today, Tuesday, a full description is on Wikipedia. This surprised me (so fast!) but did not surprise my great nieces and nephews.

LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT had its last episode Sunday June 26, 2011, thus ending a rather long running show which was part of a rather long running (and still running) franchise. Here is the whole list: Law and Order (1990-2010, 456 episodes), Law and Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011, 195 episodes), Law and Order: LA (2010-2011, 22 episodes), Law and Order: SVU (1999-2011, 272 episodes, and still going), Law and Order: Trial by Jury (2005-2006, 13 episodes), Law and Order: UK (2009-2011, 26 episodes, and still going). 456 episodes is HUGE! Check out this list of long running TV shows. The list is only updated once a year This surprised my great nieces and nephews (so slow!) but did not surprise me.

I recall three episode of Law and Order:Criminal Intent that mentioned math. I am sure there are more.

In the episode Bright Boy there was a school for gifted children in math that tried to get 10 year olds to work on the Riemann Hypothesis. It was not clear if they wanted them to solve it as children (which seems absurd) or as adults later in life (not absurd but a real long shot). The reason I find it absurd that a 10 year old could solve RH is that cleverness and brilliance is not enough- you have to actually have learned a great deal of math, perhaps too much for a 10 years old to have learned. Problems that need lots of KNOWLEDGE really can't be solved by bright 10 years olds or amateurs, no matter how brilliant they are. (See here for a post of Lipton's about of when amateurs helped solve math problems.) Getting kids interested in math by having them work on RH is the opposite of using Math competitions. Lance and I discussed math competitions as a way to interest kids in math here. Which is better? Even if you get bright pre-high school students working on problems, having them work on RH would just lead to frustration. Are there math programs that have student work on real open problems? How about phony open problems (the mentor knows the answer ahead of time). Some REU's do this for College students, but is there anything like this for High School Students?

The episode Inert Dwarf involved a brilliant physicist who, for medical reasons, was in a wheelchair (modeled vaguely after Stephen Hawking). One point of interest: he had a password that was based on hard physics and hence uncrackable. Gee, I thought that you just need to make sure your password is (1) not a word in any language (2) long enough, and (3) used Upper Case (easy for ME), lower case, numbers, and punctuation symbols. Unless it was some sort of quantum system (the episode did not indicate this) I can't see how hard physics can make a password uncrackable.

In some episode this season (I forget which one) Goren (the detective) was given the following riddle by his psychologist: There are two doors and two guards. One of the doors leads to heave, the other to hell. One of the guards always tells the truth and one always lies. You get to ask one guard one question and then you must pick a door. Goren is supposed to some sort of genius who also knows a great deal of stuff so I'm surprised he didn't know it. In the last episode of the entire series, To the boy in the blue knit cap, he answers it correctly. I think that was supposed to be symbolic or meaningful or something, but I didn't see why. (Bad writing? I'm being dense?) (ADDED LATER- ACTUALLY GOREN ASKED THE PSYCHOLOGIST THE QUESTION WHICH MAKES MORE SENSE IN TERMS OF WHO-KNOWS-WHAT.)

Bright Boy and Inert Dwarf had the same problem that many TV shows have: If the real world fact do not make the plot work, the writers change the real world facts. Numb3rs did this with Math quite a lot.


  1. I think that riddle was even featured in the film Labyrinth. Anyway, Goren's career is predicated on his ability to determine who is telling the truth and who is lying. He is unable to trust anyone. The riddle is both a test of his therapist's ability to work at his level and an analogy for his life: he is in his own Labyrinth. Ham fisted writing, but is they weren't cancelled i'm sure they would have gotten David Bowie to guest star.

  2. Re the puzzle: actually Goren gives the puzzle to his therapist, who (the therapist) answers it correctly at the end of the series while standing in front of two doors (probably signifying the choices Goren has moving forward).

  3. At


    the summary says ''she asked if he thought about the riddle" indicating that the psychologist asked Goren.
    HOWEVER, all that shows is that either it was
    the psychologist who asked Goren the riddle OR that
    me and the one who wrote that post have the same
    incorrect memory. If someone DVRed it and still has
    it on around, please check and post a comment about it.

  4. You might like http://www.math.harvard.edu/~knill/mathmovies/ -- tons of math movie references...

  5. I haven't seen the episode, but the synopsis that GASARCH linked to says (I'm just expanding the quotation) [sic]: “She asks if he thought about the riddle and the doors, and he continues that one guard heaven and the other hell and if you have one question to ask what would it be. She says what would the other guard say if his is the door - to heaven.” It sounds to me like he'd mentioned a riddle, but hadn't told it to her yet, and then at her prompting, told it to her, and then she responded with the answer.

  6. "Oh, I thought about the riddle: the doors -- the guards..." she says.
    "One guards heaven, the other hell. You have one question to ask, what will it be?"
    "What will the other guard say if you ask him if his is the door to heaven."
    "Right again."

    It it is for sure the same riddle from the kid's movie Labyrinth. The character of Goren would have been 28 when it came out in 1986, so it is possible that he hadn't seen the movie.

    But really, the likelihood that either one of them hasn't heard this riddle is so slim...

  7. The episode of Law and Order with TRUTH TELLER...
    RERAN last night so I WATCHED IT to resolve the question of who-posed-the-question, and who-answered-it. My original post was INCORRECT.
    Goren asked it, and the psychologist answered it.

    This makes MORE sense in terms of who would know the puzzle. While Goren would certainly know it,
    I can see the Psychologist NOT knowing it. THings well know to us are not as well known to non-math people.

    In terms of plot it makes less sense- the commenter
    who said that it has to do with Goren thinking everyone lies - that makes the scene make some sort of sense If she asks it. If he asks it its not quite as good.

  8. where is complexity in all this?

  9. Ken Keeler, one of the writers for Futurama, has a PhD in Math, and works mathematical jokes in all the time. In one episode, there's even a complete proof of a fairly interesting problem on the screen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prisoner_of_Benda