- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Harvard professor Jonathan Farley is an award-winning scholar, but he wouldn’t mind being known as a Hollywood mathematician.

Inspired by the box-office success of math-themed movies such as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Good Will Hunting,” he figured there was a growing demand in Hollywood for experts who could make sure the numbers add up on the screen.

So Mr. Farley and a colleague founded a consulting company to offer their expertise to television producers and filmmakers. They hit it big with their first client: the CBS drama “Numb3rs,” which stars Rob Morrow as an FBI agent who recruits his mathematical genius brother, Charlie (David Krumholtz), to help solve crimes.

“It’s not just about fixing mathematical mistakes in the script,” Mr. Farley says. “It’s also about helping them get the culture right.”

Plenty of films and TV shows employ military experts, police officers and doctors to serve as technical advisers, but Mr. Farley says his company — Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting — fills an unmet need.

Many movie mathematicians seem to luck into the job.

Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) hired Barnard College math professor Dave Bayer after he read a review of the play “Proof” that Mr. Bayer wrote for the American Mathematical Society.

Before he consulted for “Good Will Hunting,” University of Toronto physics professor Patrick O’Donnell was hired as an extra. A producer stopped him on the street and asked him to play a drunk in a bar scene with Robin Williams. Mr. O’Donnell later helped actor Matt Damon with the math his character, a troubled genius, would be tackling on-screen.

“Hollywood is not a math class,” Mr. O’Donnell says. “Every scene was accurate, but you wouldn’t learn mathematics from it.”

Mr. Farley, 35, co-founded his company with Lizzie Burns, a London-based biochemist he met while studying at the University of Oxford a decade ago. He says he and Miss Burns are philosophically at odds over how mathematically accurate movies should be.

“To make a film really credible, it’s important to get the science right,” Miss Burns says.

Mr. Farley, on the other hand, says he knows filmmakers sometimes sacrifice scientific accuracy in the name of entertainment.

“I just think there’s a way of making the science not look ridiculous, as you often find in many science-fiction shows and movies,” he says.

Mr. Farley has recruited some of his colleagues, including Harvard postdoctoral fellow Anthony Harkin, to serve as consultants. Mr. Harkin says mathematicians love to police television programs and movies for errors. One of the most famous mistakes, he adds, comes from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“When the scarecrow gets his brain, he incorrectly states the Pythagorean theorem,” Mr. Harkin says. “If any mathematician would [have] looked at it, they could have easily fixed that flaw.”

Mr. Farley gives high marks to the makers of “Numb3rs” for what he says is an accurate portrayal of how mathematicians work and interact with one another.

“Getting the math right is very important to our creators,” says Andy Black, a researcher for the show. “We do want to have that kind of credibility.”

After “Numb3rs” premiered in January, Mr. Farley e-mailed the show’s producers and offered his services. He traded messages with Mr. Black, who agreed to start sending him copies of unfinished scripts. Mr. Farley won’t disclose what his company is paid for its advice.

“Jonathan seemed very enthusiastic about pitching in,” Mr. Black says.

Mr. Farley and Mr. Harkin check the scripts for errors, scribble suggestions in the margins and send them to Mr. Black, who then passes them on to the show’s head writers.

“He presents nice, concise suggestions,” Mr. Black says. “It’s up to the writers to implement them.”

Mr. Farley says he objected to a scene in which one of the main characters, an older mathematician played by Peter MacNicol, talks about his “brazen attack on the Lorenz invariance.”

“I asked a string-theory friend, and he said it doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Farley says. “I told them, but they didn’t change it.”

The show also works closely with Gary Lorden, who chairs the math department at the California Institute of Technology. Mr. Lorden comes up with some of the formulas Charlie scribbles on chalkboards. In some episodes, one of his younger graduate students’ hands filled in for those of Mr. Krumholtz.

Mr. Lorden says he sees the job as a lark, not a business opportunity.

“I grew up seeing virtually nothing about math in the popular media,” he says. “I’m really hoping ‘Numb3rs’ spawns some imitators.”

Mr. Farley and his agent, Caron Knauer, a former associate producer at 20th Century Fox, are banking on that happening. “More and more projects are featuring math on the forefront,” Miss Knauer says. “It’s the Hollywood bandwagon mentality.”

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