Mathematics and Television

Mythbusters, ending this season, has a long valedictory in the NYT today, and I am ambivalent. I’ve enjoyed the show from time to time, especially when the team blew things up and broke stuff, but I’m not ready to get on board with it as a great science education motivator.  My wife and daughter have a thing for NUMB3RS, a police procedural featuring a trio of mathematicians who help the FBI, and I find it makes me impatient in a similar way. I think the problem is that Mythbusters too often ignored the mathematics that distinguishes engineering and science from tinkering, and NUMB3RS just treats math like a mysterious religious cult, complete with blackboards full of equations we never see long enough to begin to understand; when a real mathematical principle or result gets in the script, it’s drowned by the usual cop-show action/suspense noise.What science is about is being able to predict things using a model, almost always a mathematical one, usually confirmed or refined by experimentation. Merely watching while people say they are doing that on TV is no more educational than watching an airplane take off, after you already know that airplanes can fly.

I had an epiphanic experience along these lines when I was simultaneously in architecture and engineering school, and came upon one of my architecture profs and a group of students weaving an enormous potholder on the floor of our big atrium, out of flattened plastic tubing whose inflated diameter was about eighteen inches.  Intrigued, I asked what they were up to, and the prof said “we’re making a self-supporting structure: we’re going to inflate this with helium and tether it to the ground!”

“Wow, cool, ” I said.  And then, “how much will it support? Can we put certain difficult faculty on it and cut the tether?”

“I don’t know.  We’re going to try it and see.”

[pause] “Wait, what…are you sure it will hold itself up?”

“No, how can we tell without trying?”

I went off with a pencil and paper, having found the weight per foot of the tubing printed on the spool they were unwinding, conservatively estimated (i) the tubing as fully inflated (which it wouldn’t be as woven together) and (ii) ignoring the weight of the helium*, came back and said,

“I have bad news: this won’t be even close to getting off the ground. ”

“Well, we’ll just put more helium into it until it does.”

Genuinely mystified, I said,

“…but that’s going to make it heavier, not lighter!”  At this point another student arrived with a tank of helium on his shoulder; a big strong guy, he was visibly staggering. “Look, here’s Ray with all the helium; he’s not having any trouble holding it down!”

[long pause] “Well, let’s go ahead and try it anyway.”

I can confidently say that no engineer known to me would have taken the first step of that experiment  before doing the back-of-the envelope analysis I did. I love architects, and this story in no way means engineers are smarter: it means the two tribes have a very different way of thinking about the world and how to make it better. “…try it anyway” is not architectural thinking, though; it’s magical thinking, like insisting on tax cuts for the rich and gutting school budgets, and re-electing Sam Brownback, because you just want to be seen as someone who believes that.

The mythbusters are more responsible about figuring out what’s going to happen when they do their stuff than a lot of popular science, and I am a little torn about the show given my longstanding  feeling that people should actually do stuff more and watch other people perform less. NUMB3RS, though, is a Bad Thing, I think much worse than The Big Bang Theory, which is just Friends recast with a bunch of lovable geeks and makes no scientific pretense. Popular culture matters: getting cigarettes out of TV and movies did a lot to make smoking shameful rather than suave.  Having mathematicians do real crimefighting stuff should be good for science, right? Well, the problem is that they don’t actually do it, they just say they do, and the other characters treat them mostly like priests and gnostics privy to ineffable mysteries. Believing something just because a scientist says it is as wrong as ignoring what science tells you because there’s still coal to dig up and sell, or because you’d just prefer to think the world is 6000 years old.

I don’t have a good solution to this problem.  You can show MacGyver improvising a gadget out of a bar of soap, a rubber band, and a gum wrapper, or the mythbusters dropping a car from a crane, but math (and electronics) don’t work that way, and no-one will watch a police show interrupted with a real calculus lesson.

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*Not wishing to be obscurantist: A foot of that tubing fully inflated has a volume of 9″ squared times pi times 12″ cubic inches, or about 1-3/4 cubic foot.  A cubic foot of air weighs about .08 pounds, so  the buoyancy of that foot of tubing if it were somehow inflated with nothing would be .15 lb. The tubing weighed much more than that per foot, and with helium in it, still more.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.