TV’s ‘Numb3rs’ highlights importance of particle physics

Larry Fleinhardt, one of the characters in the hit television show "Numb3rs", has something particular in common with York Professor Wendy Taylor, Canada Research Chair in Experimental Particle Physics – both are professors working on the DZero experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago.

CBS’s "Numb3rs" (carried on Global in Canada) is a crime detective show with a calculated twist. It’s about an FBI agent and his mathematician brother, who then recruits the help of his physicist friend, Fleinhardt, to solve crimes using math to catch the bad guys – terrorists, serial criminals and the like – with an increasing emphasis on particle physics. That’s the part that caught Taylor’s attention.

"They try to solve crimes just by using math, so I think that’s neat," says Taylor, one of about 500 research scientists from around the world working on the DZero experiment.

Right: Wendy Taylor

Fleinhardt, played by Peter MacNicol, accepted a position at Fermilab to work with the DZero team during the Jan. 18 episode. In response, Fermilab set up a real office at the research centre where the character can be shot for the "Numb3rs" show working on particle physics.

The DZero experiment is about finding the fundamental nature of matter, the make-up of the universe’s building blocks, and the Higgs boson – a hypothetical elementary particle, sometimes referred to as the God particle, that would help explain the mysteries of the universe and how it was created.

Taylor says a leaked research result pointing to possible evidence of the Higgs boson, may have been part of the impetus for including particle physics in the show, as the research piqued the interest of the public and the scientific community alike. "The public and the community get really excited about these kinds of things."

The leaked analysis, however, was not conclusive. "We didn’t feel that those results were fully understood. We have a number of analyses looking for the Higgs boson. The apparent evidence in that analysis was contradicted by null results in the others," says Taylor, a professor in York’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Faculty of Science & Engineering.

The leak did raise the profile of the research, though, and the show "Numb3rs" is keeping the possibility of a Higgs boson alive in the public mind. That’s fine with Taylor. She’s happy that math, science and particle physics are getting mainstream attention.

After all, spinning protons and antiprotons in opposite directions at close to the speed of light, then smashing them together creating an explosion that yields rare particles, is not something the average person usually considers.

Left: The Tevatron’s Higgs Highway. Photo courtesy of Fermilab.

In the DZero experiment at Fermilab, which is scheduled to continue until late 2009, these protons and antiprotons are accelerated in opposing directions in a custom-built collider, called the Tevatron, with a six-kilometre circumference. Another collider, the Large Hadron Collider with a circumference of 27 kilometres, was built at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. Some 2,000 physicists from over 150 universities and laboratories in 34 countries are working on the proton smashing experiment at CERN, called ATLAS. The CERN collider is expected to turn on in July, with the experiment running until at least 2014. That should give "Numb3rs" plenty of time for particle physics plot development.

The ATLAS experiment, like the DZero experiment, is trying to solve the riddle of how the universe was created, including the origin of mass, microscopic black holes and dark matter. "They [CERN scientists] are very hopeful they will discover the Higgs boson or rule it out, and that would be interesting, because the fundamental forces theory we think explains everything depends on the existence of the Higgs boson," says Taylor, who is involved with both experiments through York.

It’s unknown whether Fleinhardt will also start working with the ATLAS experiment in the search for the Higgs boson at CERN as the storyline of "Numb3rs" develops, but it would be a natural progression in the search for the beginnings of life. Taylor thinks having particle physics in the show is a great way to make science more accessible to the public.

Above: A graphic rendition of what a Higgs boson event might look like in the DZero detector

"We kind of live in our own little world sometimes and we think it’s exciting. That’s why we do it, but it’s hard to get it out to the public," says Taylor. "So for this to come into the public domain through a TV show, I think that’s very cool. The public may see that it’s not so intangible to the everyday person."

There’s just one problem with Fleinhardt. He’s portrayed as the stereotypical geeky scientist. That’s television, says Taylor with a shrug. "It would be nice for the general public to have a different view of a scientist."

His sidekick, however, diverges from the stereotype – she’s a beautiful grad student – and that has Taylor optimistic the show may attract more young people from both genders to physics. The race to be the first to discover the mysteries of life, and how it was created, is on. Particle physics may be sexier than most people realize.

As Taylor says: "I think what we’re doing is really exciting and has ramifications for mankind. We are looking into the fundamentals of nature."

For more information about DZero, ATLAS or particle physics, e-mail Wendy Taylor at

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.