Running the 'Numb3rs' at Caltech

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In the Friday CBS drama "Numb3rs" -- which returns with original episodes after the Winter Olympics -- David Krumholtz plays Charlie Eppes, a mathematician at a fictional university called Cal Sci, which, for all intents and purposes is Caltech, short for California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena.

On a bright but chilly January day on the Caltech campus, several of the "Numb3rs" cast are working next to the bucolic Throop Memorial Garden, with its ancient California stones and lily pond -- inhabited, as Krumholtz points out, by frogs and turtles.

In the show, Charlie helps out his brother, FBI agent Don (Rob Morrow), by coming up with clever ways to use mathematics in crime solving. Among those helping show creators Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci into coming up with those clever math solutions is Gary Lorden, executive officer for Caltech's math department.

Sitting in the garden between takes, Krumholtz points and says, "This building is the math department. I just went and visited him. I sat in on a couple of classes."

And, Krumholtz reports, no one recognized him. "That's what's amazing," he says. "These kids are so intense that, to some extent, they're missing out of that component. They don't often recognize me. I walk right past them. And the ones that do are probably the worst students."

Now that the show is settled in at Caltech, filming goes on while classes are in session. Students exhibit only a mild curiosity as they walk by scenes involving Krumholtz and fellow cast members Navi Rawat (as astrophysics grad student Amita Ramanujan), Peter MacNicol (theoretical physics Prof. Larry Fleinhardt), Alimi Ballard and Dylan Bruno (as FBI Agents David Sinclair and Colby Granger, respectively).

"David loves to go to Caltech to shoot," Falacci says, "because he's just so fascinated by the students."

Apparently he's interested in the teachers too, all the way back to the pilot, when the tech adviser was Dr. Tony Chan of UCLA.

"The first time I said, 'Do you want to meet a math teacher?'" Heuton recalls, "he said, 'Yes!' I remember one of his first questions after he heard Tony talk for a few minutes, he said, 'Do you dream in numbers?' And Dr. Chan was like, 'Yes, yes, I do.' I remember thinking, 'This is going to work.'"

Although Charlie is a Cal Sci professor, the dramatic needs of the show haven't allowed him to be seen teaching, and that's something both Krumholtz and the producers would like to address.

"The network," Krumholtz says, "is into establishing a franchise as this mathematician who helps the FBI with its FBI work, that oftentimes they worry that going into the classroom might be boring and over people's heads.

"We're just trying to figure out a fancy way to do a classroom scene that would apply itself to the crime."

"I would like to see him teaching as part of a story," Heuton says, "and something comes to him in the course of teaching."

While "Numb3rs" hasn't made it into the fictional classroom yet, it is having an impact on real ones. Texas Instruments, working with CBS and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, has created an educational outreach program with activities and problems based on particular episodes.

"Isn't this great?" Krumholtz says. "The last figure we got, there were upwards of 20,000 teachers who had ordered these programs, and it's being used and seen by 2 million kids across this country, from grades six through 12."

With the TI program, teachers can address a common complaint about math, which is students having trouble figuring out how it applies to the real world.

"What's so great about this show," Krumholtz says, "is not only do we put the math in context, but we're able to visualize it for the audience [through special effects]. We do these visual metaphors that are really quite powerful, and they're really well done. They make the math make just that much more sense.

"If we can turn around two kids in this country that otherwise might have no interest in mathematics just based on some cool special effects, then we've done our job. And I think we're influencing a lot more than two."

Also helping is the release of the season-one DVDs in May.

As the cast prepares to break for lunch, Lorden drops by.

"Krumholtz makes us proud," he says, "and glad that he's representing us, because he does it in a natural way, in an effective way. He's the sort of guy that you'd want as your math teacher, not just because he's spectacular looking, but because he's engaging, he's passionate, and he delivers the goods.

"I take some small credit for that, because sometimes that's what I'm able to do, suggest some way to explain things."

"Sometimes I kick myself," Krumholtz says, "for making the character too cool at times, the hair is too good, the clothes are too couture. But at the same time, I'm trying to glamorize and glorify who these people are."

When the lunch break comes, the curly-haired Krumholtz and the tall, balding Lorden head off side by side across campus, lost in intense conversation, which continues over the meal. Outside "Numb3rs," it's hard to imagine that these two people would ever have met, let alone become fast friends.

"It's interesting to see that there's an affinity there," Heuton says. "It's a thrill to watch it."

According to Heuton, Lorden gave a lecture at Caltech in which he mentioned "Numb3rs" and paid tribute to its star.

"David actually started to cry," Heuton says. "It's been a very warm relationship."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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