Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Crystal Math- What NUMB3RS and BREAKING BAD both get wrong

The TV show Numb3rs  had as a premise that a GENIUS mathematician
could help solve crimes. Is this true? I rather doubt you need a GENIUS-
though of course some prob, state, data mining,  the math behind forensics, and a few other things help. And it may help to know some number theory if a mathematician who is working on the Riemann hypothesis has his daughter kidnapped.  But I don't think you need someone on the level of Charles Eppes.

The TV show Breaking Bad  (see Honest Trailor for Breaking Bad and/or
Idiots Guide to Breaking Bad if you've seen the first 4.5 seaons at least)
has as a premise that a GENIUS chemist can make really good crystal meth. And as a by product it's blue. I know nothing about the crystal meth business; however a chemist friend of mine (who has never made the stuff) tells me that YES, being a careful chemist is good, and certainly better than a meth-head who is more likely to blow up his lab than to produce any, a GENIUS chemist would not be any better than a good chemist.

The TV show Elementary  (Sherlock Holmes in modern day New York) and many other shows (Monk, Perception, Psyche, The Mentalist, Columbo, and others I am sure) has as a premise that a GENIUS observer could help solve crimes. This may be more true then the above, but there are other tools available today (e.g., DNA).

All of these shows, and others, make the  FALLACY OF EXTRAPOLATION. Taking a good idea and extrapolating it to absurdity.

Here is a non-TV example: If blogging is part of my job, and I can deduct job expenses for Tax purposes, then I should be able to deduct the cost of the DVD's for Numb3rs that I bought because of this post.


  1. NUMB3RS - you need someone who is a genius at applying math in clever ways

    Breaking Bad - he is using different chemicals to make the drug so that he can avoid ingredients on the watch list so maybe he needed to be a genius to come up with the new formula

  2. I never got the idea from Breaking Bad that Walt cooks great meth because he is a genius. He cooks great meth because he is an absolute stickler for detail. Jesse has become a great cook as well because he has inherited Walt's attention to detail, not because he suddenly became a chemistry genius.

    1. In an episode where Walter (stupidly) says to Hank (his DEA brother-in-law)
      `your genius is still out there' the underlying assumption is that the chemist making the blue stuff is a genius. So at least Walter and Hank both think
      that Walter is a genius. That does not really prove anything. The real question is not what Walt and Hank think, its what the writers think.

      Jessie being able to make it- could be that coming up with the right combination
      (which walt did) takes a genius, but replicating it is not that hard.

      Realize of course that we are debating about FICTIONAL characters.
      So there may be no right answer.

    2. I don't believe that Walter White is intended to be portrayed as a genius in the series. He is a better chemist than his competitors primarily because he has actually been trained as a chemist, as opposed to being trained as a meth user or a gang member. It's made clear that he is not competing on a fast track, chemistry-wise. :)

      The word "genius" gets bandied about in the series in the same tone that folks who have not attended college use to refer to people with doctorates.

  3. Maybe it's time for a show called "Breaking Crypto" , starring a genius NSA analyst that goes rogue and blackmails rich people with sensitive info, in order to pay for his cancer treatment.

    On a more serious note, that's nothing new and not restricted with TV. There is a huge amount of movies, even biographical, where the skills of an individual, even if he was a genius, are exaggerated.

  4. From my perspective, fiction today has long since decided that "genius" is logically equivalent to "mad scientist without the insanity." While this is not true for real life, it certainly makes the above two examples, and many others, work perfectly. While it may not be possible to make a "better form" of a drug simply because you are a genius, a Mad Scientist (which is usually logically equivalent to a wizard, just with all the magic babble replaced with techno-babble) to break laws of chemistry and achieve a "upgraded" form of something with no research etc. Similarly a "genius mathematician" is capable of doing things logically equivalent to magic and whatnot.

    From my perspective, 99.9% of tv these days is fantasy or sci-fi, since real life doesn't make a very good plot.

  5. all of us know that the one true genius whose skills have never been vastly exaggerated was jonnie von neumann. this is the type of guy that comes to shine once every century.

    1. If I had to mention one genius, certainly Alan Turing would come up before Von Neumann...

    2. Even though this is Computational Complexity, I would name Feynman first.

    3. Come on!

      I know Turing and his work well. He was a great mind. But this recent hype trying to cast him as the CS superhero is disturbing. There are so many subjects that we cannot think of without von Neumann that it is simply impossible to deny his extraordinariness. He enforces himself on us. Turing had some lasting contributions, he was a good scientist. But was he a genius? It is not just that people outside CS didn't know about him or his work, nor the fact that the things will likely go more or less the same way if he didn't exist, but even researchers in the areas that he made his famous contributions to didn't think of him as a genius.

      When computer scientists praise Turing with exaggeration it reminds me how religious zealots would praise the saints of their religions (which they really don't know much about).

    4. Neither Turing nor Von Neumann were as good as Charles Eppes.
      Its helps to be fictional!

  6. Reimann -> Riemann

  7. You left out Batman.