Math Professor Goes Hollywood

Farley co-founds consulting

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Last year’s recipient of the Harvard Foundation’s Distinguished Scientist Award and current Harvard post-doctoral fellow Jonathan Farley ’91, has recently added one more credit to his resume: Hollywood consultant. [CORRECTION APPENDED]

With the recent success of movies incorporating mathematics, Farley—a professor of mathematics at the State University of New York at Buffalo who is currently doing research at Harvard—tapped into his professional knowledge and headed west to Hollywood, where he founded a consulting company that helps television and movie producers portray accurate mathematics on screen. [CORRECTION APPENDED]

Co-founder Lizzie Burns—a biochemist from London whom Farley met while studying at the University of Oxford—is not a stranger to deviating from her mathematical roots. [CORRECTION APPENDED]

In recent years, she has put together several art exhibitions that combine her love of art and knowledge of science.

The consulting company—Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting—had its first deal consulting the hit CBS drama “Numb3rs.”

The television program stars Rob Morrow, an FBI agent, who employs his younger brother—a mathematical genius—to help solve investigations.

Farley, along with business partner Anthony Harkin, a post-doctoral fellow in applied mathematics, read through the scripts of “Numb3rs” and sent comments back to producers and writers. From there, it is ultimately the producers’ decision as to whether or not the comments are to be implemented.

“In many cases, they want me to elaborate on some of the math already in the script,” said Farley. “I help add dialogue and fine tune the math already in the script.”

While producers must sometimes sacrifice perfect mathematics in the name of entertainment, Farley noted that another important aspect of his job is to make sure mathematicians themselves are portrayed accurately.

“The main thing I am interested in is that they get the culture right,” said Farley. “Sometimes the characters don’t say things that are reflective of how mathematicians would interact with one another.”

While the profession of mathematician-turned-consultant might seem an odd transition, it has been a profession in the making in the recent past.

Producers of movies such as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Good Will Hunting” all hired mathematicians to help increase their films’ mathematical accuracy.

Joseph D. Harris, Higgens professor of mathematics and chair of the mathematics department, notes that while a transition into Hollywood consulting may be rare, mathematicians have commonly made the transition from academics to areas such as finance in the past.

“In the last 10 to 20 years, the most common transition has been that several people have gone from being academic mathematicians to working in finance,” he said. “[The transition] usually involves leaving academics all together.”

But Farley has no such intention. While he loves what he does with the consulting agency, he notes that his true passion and occupation will remain with mathematics.

“My primary focus is, of course, mathematics research,” he says. “But I would like to continue to have fun with the consulting.”