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[Computational Complexity] Factoring NUMB3RS

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  • Lance
    Scott Aaronson weighs in on last night s NUMB3RS episode Prime Suspect . Minor Spoiler Warning. Last night s NUMB3RS again centered around complexity. A
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 19, 2005
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      Scott Aaronson weighs in on last night's NUMB3RS episode "Prime Suspect". Minor Spoiler Warning.

      Last night's NUMB3RS again centered around complexity. A brilliant mathematician (not Charlie) tells his friends that he's on the verge of proving the Riemann hypothesis -- and not only that, but his proof will somehow yield a fast factoring algorithm. When the bad guys get wind of this, they kidnap the mathematician's six-year-old daughter, demanding the algorithm as ransom. But the mathematician refuses to cooperate with the FBI investigation of the kidnapping. The reason, we later learn, is that the mathematician has fooled himself: he doesn't have a proof or an algorithm, and he's terrified the bad guys will find out. (One thing that has to be said for NUMB3RS: in contrast to, say, Good Will Hunting, it does get across the idea that math problems are hard.) So Charlie has the improbable task of helping the other mathematician fake a factoring algorithm -- apparently, the bad guys won't be savvy enough to run whatever they get on a few random instances!

      In a way, this episode represents a retreat from the premise that "math helps us solve crimes" -- I mean, no duh it helps, if the crimes in question happen to involve polynomial-time factoring algorithms! But in my opinion, the fact that math was actually integral to the plot helped to make this the most effective episode so far. In contrast to the P versus NP episode, this time they actually explained a little about prime numbers, RSA, and factoring, and did a fairly non-egregious job by TV standards. Admittedly, an RH proof leading to a factoring algorithm seems pretty farfetched, but what path to efficient factoring isn't farfetched? (Other than building a quantum computer, of course.)

      My main criticism is that, whenever Charlie and the other academics open their mouths, I feel like I'm listening to foreigners speaking perfectly grammatical sentences that no native speaker would ever utter. The phrasing is just too pretentious -- a trivial example being that everyone calls the Riemann hypothesis "Riemann's hypothesis." If they wanted to, the writers could easily fix this problem by reading the scripts to mathematicians, and seeing which lines pass the cringe test.

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      Posted by Lance to Computational Complexity at 2/19/2005 06:14:00 AM

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