Indeed, though scientists may be portrayed as socially inept (“Big Bang Theory”), downright eccentric (“The Eleventh Hour”), or even completely mad (“Fringe”), television’s new wave of lab denizens have become the greatest ambassadors for science since Bill Nye the Science Guy first donned a bow tie. But the respect for these characters comes, in large part, from the real scientists and mathematicians who watchdog the scripts. By steering shows away from the pseudo-scientific jargon of “Doctor Who,” these consultants remind viewers that seemingly arcane principles from Physics 101 have real-world applications.
“Most of the TV writers I meet love science,” says Jennifer Ouellette, director of a National Academy of Science program that connects scientists with entertainment professionals. “They want to have a very believable, plausible, realistic fiction that they create. They care a lot more about that, in part, because audiences have gotten much more sophisticated. You can’t just string a bunch of ‘science-y’ things together because people will know you’re faking.”
In “Numb3rs,” a CBS procedural in which a mathematician helps his FBI-agent brother solve crimes, the mathematical verbiage can stack up faster than a Fibonacci sequence. But the show’s fictitious math whiz demonstrates how science permeates aspects of daily life. Want to know how a computerized answering machine can understand what you’re saying over the phone? Watch the Jan. 30 episode, which features a vault that’s safeguarded by voice recognition, for an explanation of how it all comes down to Fourier transforms and sound wavelets. For extra credit, you can visit “The Math Behind Numb3rs,” an educational website maintained by show consultant Ed Pegg Jr., which is updated after each episode.