Math and TV

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.


*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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Math and TV”

  1. The alleged brilliance of the architect-masons of the Gothic cathedrals is strongly influenced by survivor bias. Their soaring creations frequently suffered partial collapses. In England alone, they hit parts of Winchester (1107), Gloucester (12th century), Worcester (1175), Ely (1321), Norwich (1361), and Hereford (1786). Beauvais in France fell down twice, in 1282 and 1573. "One source estimates that at least 17% of all cathedrals built during the mediaeval period, Romanesque as well as Gothic, ultimately suffered catastrophic damage and collapse" (source).

  2. I often wished that Mythbusters would, at very least, make the point that an engineering degree is the easiest and most appropriate way to get to do the types of things they get to do. Of course, they don't, since Imahara was the only one with an engineering degree, but engineers simply have a better skillset for building equipment and machinery than pretty much anyone else.

    Note: I am not an engineer, but I sometimes regret that fact.

  3. You’re not going to get good depictions of science on screen (large or small) until there are scientists in the writers’ rooms with the authority to veto studio executives’ directives for faster pacing, bigger explosions, and sexier romance. Simultaneously.

    Yeah, that’s going to happen Real Soon Now. </sarcasm>

  4. I appreciate that every episode, they lay out the busted / confirmed criteria as part of the setup.
    That they allow 'inconclusive' as an option.
    That they create small scale models fairly often to test ideas before the full test.

    It's better than many science classes, where you can figure out the 'right' answer from looking at the textbook, and backfill the data.

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