Ed Witten, TV writer

There’s a story in this Sunday’s New York Times television section describing how Ed Witten pitched a story idea to the people who make the new TV show Numb3rs. According to one of the show’s executive producers, Cheryl Heuton, “Ed sent our script back along with an episode idea, which we used, telling us we should do something about a rogue mathematician who tried to crack Internet security by solving the Riemann hypothesis.” Witten had received the Numb3rs script to look at from his brother, the writer Matt Witten.

For more about the Caltech mathematicians who are the main consultants for the TV show, see this USA Today article.

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16 Responses to Ed Witten, TV writer

  1. Anonymous says:

    I guess Ed should keep his day job.

  2. Alejandro Rivero says:

    “a rogue mathematician who tried to crack Internet security by solving the Riemann hypothesis”.

    Plot already used, in the movie “Sneakers”. The mathematician gets killed fast along the plot. According some web pages, the mathematical advisor contacted was Len Adleman, “the A in RSA”.

  3. Chris Oakley says:

    I thought that Matt Damon was an actor. Or is this what “method acting” is about – totally getting into the part. So if you play Hitler you have to be a crazy megalomaniac who wants to annex the Sudetenland (not likely to be good for the Czech tourist industry) & if you play Lord Byron you have to have a “fling” (well, possibly) with your half-sister – ?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Solving an undergrad level matrix problem might not seem like much to you, but this is Matt Damon we’re talking about. A math coach can only do so much.

  5. The programme that I recall Ed Witten walking through the countryside, was Stephen Hawkings “Universe”?..it also shows Smolin walking across stones of a stream/river?

    I met Ed Witten when he was here in Swansea University(the re-located stringtheory summer school for postgrads 95-96?)..where I first seen the words Brane and T-Duality. The conference was very intense, most of the Post-Grads were ‘rebelling’ against the new generalized theory of ‘M-THEORY’ and such.

    Ed Witten had a lot of problems with the post-grad students, and a number of them left the lectures totally bemused. One outcome was the emergence of VSL, which was put forward by a number of ‘persons’, in the snooker room, over the snooker table.

    I played my part in asking certain questions,(I was Porter at the Uni!), and some of the postgrads were really interested in some of what I asked regarding of why the speed of light had to be different if one rewinds Einsteins Field Equations, one response I recall:The speed of light and its constancy, is one of the most sacred postulates of science, you dont mess with any constants, if you want to get anywhere in the future,(context was wrt Academia).

    Rogue mathematician I am not:http://groups.msn.com/RelativityandtheMind/shoebox.msnw?Page=1


  6. Anonymous says:

    The program with Witten walking through the wilderness and walking on a dry lake bed was probably a NOVA show on PBS about string theory.

  7. Redouan says:


    >Speaking of Witten and tv does anyone know what program/series >featured Ed Witten wandering through the countryside…

    Well, it’s not exactly that program, but there was another one broadcasted on Dutch television showing some parts with Witten in Amsterdam during the 1997 summer String Theory seminar. For the most part, however, it’s Michio Kaku in Manhattan doing the talking. [the program is 24 min. long.]
    You can watch it on

    Funny part: Einstein arriving in 1930 in NY surrounded by a horde of reporters.

    Reporter: What do you think of Prohibition professor?
    Einstein: Ich drinke nicht, also… ist mir dann ganz gleich.

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: Good Will Hunting, it looks like someone at Harvard has posted the blackboard problem. I don’t think that he is saying that one would need to be a genius to solve it, though.

  9. Alejandro Rivero says:

    The initial version of Bretch’ Galileo was discussed by the author with the physicist of Copenhagen.

  10. Santo D'Agostino says:

    Chris (and anonymous),

    Some of Good Will Hunting was shot in Toronto. University of Toronto high-energy physicist Pat O’Donnell was having lunch one day at a Chinese restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown. Pat’s got a full white beard and a thick accent. The casting person from the movie was having lunch at a nearby table and offered him a small role in the movie. When the movie people found out his profession, they also made him a consultant, and Pat was responsible for putting the mathematics on the blackboards.

    I seem to recall Pat saying he consulted with number theorists, but in any case one shouldn’t rush to blame him if the math didn’t come out realistic without finding out more about the situation. Hollywood has its own agenda, and being accurate is not necessarily part of that agenda in most cases. They may have given Pat certain instructions about what the math should be like, but I don’t have any information about that.

    Santo D’Agostino

  11. Stephen says:


    Speaking of Witten and tv does anyone know what program/series featured Ed Witten wandering through the countryside and sitting by rivers scribbling on a notepad, and walking across the boulders on some dried-up lake bed?

    This is firmly emblazoned within my mind as well. Can’t recall the name of this program either though.

    Because of what it signified, and what I concluded, is that intense mental dealings with math could stifle the mind from finding anything further, but it was from these silent walks and divergences from the hectic, that allowed the breakthroughs to manifest.

    I think this was the point that Witten was showing then. It also open up the idea that complex mathematics might from perspective, as if in some meditative stance, takes us closer to finding the language most relevent in innovation, when such math structures are contemplated.

    Invention is no less in the same sequence of events as math might be in creativeness, that if you leave it, it will come later.

    Looking for these areas of further intelligence developement in mathematics, raise the issue of cognitive functions spoken in previous post.

    Why metaphorically, bubbly structures rising to the surface, from unconsious processes, might be more revealing then first anticipated?

    For example it was Ramanujan’s enviromental god processes that spoke to him about the math , but of his mind was dealing with complex variables in a way that metaphorically was the sign post of probabilities?

    Yet out of the hectic, a system emerged. You just had to be aware of what the mind was capable of producing and how it would do that.

    Ramanujan was no different then you and I and the envirnoment that we deal, with could manifest creative possibilties, as math would in comparison. Why Susskind’s light switch turned on, with those loops called strings?

    Perspective views of other systems could awaken more comlex structures, as seems to be the way of math structures continung to build on itself , when these minds become involved and contemplate.


  12. Anonymous says:

    I noticed that too Chris. You would at least think they could get a consultant mathematician and get it looking right. I guess they figure it is good enough to fool the layperson majority in the audience. At least this Numbers series has consulants, which I think is important. You see this all the time though in old sci fi films. In one old film I saw once there is a “scientist” talking away and on a black board behind him is chalked F=Gm1m2/r^{2} and nothing else! Why?! I guess it was meant to show that he was a “scientist”. I did see the movie “Supernova” on dvd recently. Not a great sci-fi movie but not bad. In once scene the ship’s computer does a stunning mathematical analysis of an alien weapon, that was dug up on an ice moon in orbit around a giant start about to explode. The weapon contains “9-dimensional matter”–I guess it must be superstring. Freezing the scene on the dvd remote the equations look pretty good. At least they put some thought into it. I also need to get a life:). Incidently the guy exposed to the superstring weapon becomes a deranged superhuman psychotic who proceeds to murder all the crew. So string theorists might enjoy the movie:)

  13. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: the USA Today article, Ramakrishnan is right on target about Good Will Hunting, the tale of a janitor at an Ivy League university who writes solutions to cutting edge mathematical research problems on white boards in between mopping floors. IIRC (I only saw the film once, on a noisy aeroplane) the “solutions”, insofar as they were comprehensible at all, were just first-year-undergrad matrix calculations which, scarily enough, had actual numbers in them – something a true mathematician would shun at all cost.

  14. Steve says:

    I guess they are a very talented family. How many Witten brothers are there anyway? There is a Monty Python sketch–“the Golden Age of Ballooning” where they discuss “Barry Zeppelin” the “least talented of the Zeppelin brothers” so I am wondering if there is a “Barry Witten” somewhere:)who has been completely overshadowed by his brothers. It does happen. Speaking of Witten and tv does anyone know what program/series featured Ed Witten wandering through the countryside and sitting by rivers scribbling on a notepad, and walking across the boulders on some dried-up lake bed? I remember seeing this in the 90s on some science series…I really liked that scene though. It was the most memorable. In fact the only part I actually remember.

  15. Luboš Motl says:

    Maybe Juan has proved the Riemann hypothesis, and Ed has shown how to use it to compromise the internet security…

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