The Math Solution

I watched this the first couple of seasons when it came out in 2005, before I became averse to TV drama shows. I’m reviewing this episode because of something in the plot that piqued my interest. It’s NUMB3RS, by Nicolas Falacci and Cheryl Heuton, and it’s about math genius Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz) and his brother Don (Rob Morrow), who is an FBI agent working in Los Angeles. Charlie, who is a math prof, helps his brother solve crimes by the application of arcane math principles. This is about the second episode of season one.

The plot revolves around tracking a bank robbery gang, and the opening shots show some statistics. Here, 16 banks were robbed, two robbers, average take is $2700, and no weapons employed. These two are called the Charm School Gang, because they are so polite. They even open the door for other customers when entering the bank, and they smile throughout the operation.


Charlie has applied some statistical analyses and has determined an underlying pattern to the sequence of crimes. He has predicted the robbers will strike on a particular day at one of two banks in L.A. The title sequence overlays security video shots from the robberies with math symbols.


The FBI is waiting on the appropriate day, and the robbers strike one of the two banks. Agents rush in to make the arrest, but there is a dramatic turn. Unknown before, the robbers have always had a backup of four well armed henchmen, who never made an appearance before, because they never needed to. In a hail of gunfire an agent is killed, along with one of the bandits. The others make their escape.


The failure of the FBI operation and the death of the agent sends Charlie into a deep funk, and he takes himself off the case, immersing himself at his home in the solution of one of the so-called NP-complete math problems. It’s a class of problems still defying resolution.


The crooks pull off another robbery, this time killing a bank manager. Charlie’s friend on campus, physics professor Larry Fleinhardt (Peter MacNicol) reminds Charlie of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. It applies to sub atomic particles (and even to atomic particles), and it makes us aware that measurement, observation, of an entity requires some interaction with it, thus affecting the thing being observed. This is critically true of sub atomic particles, but Charlie is reminded that macro objects, such as bank robbers, are also affected when they are observed, particularly when they are made aware they have been observed, such as the FBI presence at the previous robbery.

And Charlie has more. This is a world-class operation, armed to the hilt, military coordination, with six skilled operators involved. For an average of $2700 a whack? Something is wrong. Charlie figures out with it is. They are not robbing banks. They are using the robberies as a cover for another crime. The crooks are stealing bank transaction data. While everybody else is preoccupied with the heist, somebody is slipping over to one of their computer terminals.

The robbers are after bigger stakes. They are tracking the schedule for the delivery for destruction of millions of dollars in unfit currency by the Federal Reserve Bank. They are going to hold up the cash transfer.

Don and the FBI team prepare to intercept the heist. Charlie is there. He reminds Don of the Heisenberg Uncertainty. The gang is likely aware the feds are on to the scheme. Don tells Charlie to not worry. They are well prepared for the Heisenberg Principle.


Sure enough. The bandits intercept the shipment. Sure enough, they get the drop on the FBI agents.


But Don and the other agents are one step ahead. They know the bandits know, and they have anticipated the getaway plan, killing one of the bandits and capturing the others. Here Don says hello to the ring leader as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to start the getaway car.


And here is my Skeptical Analysis—it’s something I picked up on in my working life. Since I never had a real career, just a succession of jobs, I ended up working with a wide range of technologies. My first patent involved the Federal Reserve Bank. They wanted a machine that would automatically put a strap around a bundle of 100 bills. In the course of this project, I visited the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas and got a look at their operation. And I saw what they do with unfit currency. They do not, as the TV plot would have it, take bundles of currency to a secret location for destruction. They destroy it right on the spot.

In the basement of the Dallas branch were hand carts loaded with tremendous stacks of currency. Particularly, there were some carts loaded with unfit currency. You could tell. Each bundle of 100 had been drilled through, leaving two 1/2-inch diameter holes in each bill. These bills were worthless. Further destruction of the bills was rendered by a hammer mill, and the chaff was sold off for planters mulch and such.

The project I worked on went a step further. It eliminated the need to drill the two holes. My company sold the Federal Reserve a system that accepted stacks of bills into a feed hopper and peeled them off at high speed, feeding them into a document transport. As each bill passed down the length of the machine various readers detected counterfeit, which was routed to a special bin. Other stations recorded denomination, serial number, and such. Another station detected unfit currency. Unfit currency went all the way to the end of the machine, about ten feet, and entered a high-speed shredder.

And that’s what I found screwy about this plot. The writers could have patched this up a bit and made it true to life. But then, this is fiction, and it’s OK to give the imagination free rein.


6 thoughts on “The Math Solution

  1. The Heisenberg Principal has a parallel in Management Analysis, called the Hawthorne Effect, wherein any study of a work process has an effect on the quality and quantity of work (e.g., productivity goes up during the course of the study).
    There is another observation in management analysis that says that half of the effort in a project (funds, man-hours, etc.) is spent nailing down the last 10% of the project. Is there a similar rule or law in physics?

    • I’m acquainted with what you call the Hawthorne Effect. For example, questioning workers about the adequacy of lighting in the workspace gives them a better feel about the lighting in the workspace, and you don’t have to actually do anything about adjusting the lighting.

      The only general law in physics that I know is that if you think you understand something completely, you are probably on the wrong track.

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