Monday, December 17, 2007

Living by the Numb3rs

I love the show Numb3rs. In it, an FBI agent solves cases with the help of his brother Charlie, a mathematics-whiz professor. (I love shows that make science look cool.) Several times each episode, Charlie explains to the other clever but clearly lost FBI agents (and us clever but clearly lost viewers) how some obscure but brilliant mathematical theory and formula can be used to pinpoint the suspect.

During these explanations, the scene morphs from a picture of, say, a tree to a computer-generated grid full of lines and vectors, degrees and measures, formulas, and arrows darting all over. It’s all very fast and dizzying as his explanation sketches itself across the screen, but in the end (even though none of the other FBI agents or us viewers actually understood a word of his explanation), you know that the case will be solved because all those lines and arrows looked pretty darned convincing.

Last night my husband, son, and I went to see a movie and then we went to dinner at a nearby restaurant. As we sat down at the table, my eyes darted around the table, over the menu, across the restaurant towards the kitchen, and back again. I realized that if you could draw my thought process, my brain would look a lot like one of Charlie’s explanations.

I’ve been dealing with my son’s allergies for so long now, that I don’t even realize all the calculations I do every day. But as I’m sitting down, I’m scanning the table for crumbs, baskets of bread, dishes of nuts, and other hazards. I’m looking at the menu to see how many of the items on it might contain nuts, to determine how high the risk of nut cross-contamination might be. I’m getting a feel for the overall restaurant – how easy the servers will be to work with, how clean the place looks, how crowded it is (calculating a risk of confusion in the kitchen), whether they have a kids menu, and what types of foods my son is going to be exposed to.

I’m assessing probabilities, calculating risks, formulating contingency plans, and estimating our best paths for success.

And all of that happens in the first few seconds.

From there, it’s a slower set of constant negotiations – “No, dear, you can’t have the bread because we don’t know where it was baked.” “Excuse me, do you put pine nuts on your pizzas here?” “Can you make my pasta without walnuts?” “Dessert looks like a bad idea. We’ll have some cookies when we get home.”

All of those constant calculations and recalculations, which seemed so overwhelming when I was first learning about my son’s allergies, have become second nature by now. And while I don’t walk into a restaurant completely relaxed anymore, it’s become so familiar that I don’t panic, and I’m really not even aware that I’m doing all those calculations. I’m pretty sure that if someone tried to sketch out my thought process on a blackboard, it would put some of those FBI scenarios to shame.

Math Whiz Charlie would be awfully proud of me.

Hey, that gives me an idea! Quick, someone call the producers of Numb3rs! I’ve got a great concept for a script!

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