Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Numb3rs and Monty Hall

Ok, I know I'm way way behind the curve on this, but I'm just starting to get into the show Numb3rs. Mostly because I hardly watch any TV and secondly, the show is on Friday nights when I don't watch any.

The DVDs of the show are hard to get from Blockbuster online, but I did manage to get the last disk of season 1, which had just one episode plus some bonus material. I watched the one episode, Man Hunt, last night and it threw a lot of math and statistics at us. Bayesian Analysis, Markov processes and, most importantly: the Monty Hall Problem! Charlie's explanation of the answer was too short and not all that convincing. In fact, I think it's inaccurate because the problem was misstated. In the real Monty Hall problem, the fact that the host will always give the choice to switch after the initial selection is made is stated at the beginning - and that makes a big difference. But I was thrilled that the problem made it to prime time anyway.

BTW, the bonus material includes an interview with Gary Lorden, chairman of the mathematics department at CalTech and math consultant to the show, as well as the two creators of the show concept. There is clearly a deep passion in these people for the teaching of math and they've done a good job with this show of getting some fundamental ideas out to the public.

IMHO, the best part of the bonus material is when Gary Lorden explains that part of what they were trying to demonstrate on the show is that even for smart people, math is hard. It's something that you work at. Charlie spends hours at the board working on his theories before he comes up with something. And he doesn't always get it right the first time. He's persistent though and he keeps trying until he comes up with a theory that fits the evidence.

The second best part of the Lorden interview was when he showed the clip where Peter McNichol, playing Dr. Larry Fleinhardt (probably meant to resemble Richard Feynman), comments that the math department is the least libidinous department on campus.

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