a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Burn Notice (Episode: Signals and Codes) (2009)
Jason Tracey (screenplay) / Jeremiah Chechik (director)

Presumably, each episode of this old TV series features ex-CIA agent Michael Westen catching some "bad guys" in the hope of being re-accepted by his former employer. (I say "presumably" because I've only seen this one episode..and have no intention of seeing any more.)

In the fifth episode of the third season, Westen is approached by a strange, nervous man who claims to have figured out that he is a master spy. When insisting he is mistaken and ignoring him don't work, and once the man begins to shout out loud that Westen is a spy, Westen reluctantly agrees to talk with him.

The man eventually identifies himself as Spencer, "a mathematician, M.I.T., with doctoral work at Duke". He also says he now works for a defense contractor. Although he had only said a few sentences by that point, I had already recognized that the actor playing Spencer was attempting to imitate the autistic character from "Rain Man". So, okay, that's an annoying mathematical stereotype, and this actor was not even doing it very well. But, it looked as if this character was at least going to be someone smart and reliable and therefore not completely embarrassing. In fact, since he was able to somehow figure out who Westen was, the other characters initially trusted him when he announced that he has discovered a spy at his firm and that one of his colleagues was killed as a result.

But, that doesn't last long. Soon Spencer is babbling about how he is receiving coded messages from space about an alien invasion and showing them a wall of seemingly unrelated newspaper clippings. Also, it turns out that although he does work for a defense contractor, his job there is that he waters the plants in the office. So, as you see, he is not the sort of mathematical role model I long to see represented in fiction. Still, Spencer is able to convince Westen that he's on to something.

No mathematical details of any kind are ever offered, but we learn that Spencer can look at long lists of numbers on a computer screen or print out and "see patterns" and through this he actually did discover an illegal and treasonous plot by another employee at the company and she did have someone killed after he found out.

So, aside from the aliens part, he was right: One of the VPs at the firm where Spencer works was intercepting encrypted e-mail and breaking a "4 kilobyte algorithmic code" so that she could sell the names of American spies to foreign agencies. Several attempts to catch her fail, leaving them with only one option that unfortunately depends on Spencer seeming normal for a few minutes, which of course he cannot do.

IMHO, this is not a great example of mathematical fiction, or spy fiction, or literature of any kind. The writing, directing, and acting could all have been better (especially the writing). But, I'm including it here in my database not because I am recommending that anyone seek out and watch it but because I think it is important to keep track of the portrayals of mathematicians in popular culture. This one is unique. Even though I've seen lots of examples of autistic mathematicians in fiction and lots of schizophrenic fictional mathematicians inspired by John Nash Jr. in fiction, Spencer is the only character I have seen that is both of these simultaneously!

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Works Similar to Burn Notice (Episode: Signals and Codes)
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. She Spies (Episode: Message from Kassar) by Vince Manze (script) / Joe Livecchi (script) / Steven Long Mitchell (script)
  2. The Last Enemy by Peter Berry (Screenplay) / Iain B. MacDonald (Director)
  3. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  4. Gauntlet by Richard Aaron
  5. Tetraktys by Ari Juels
  6. Fermat's Room (La Habitacion de Fermat) by Luis Piedrahita / Rodrigo SopeƱa
  7. The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke / Frederik Pohl
  8. The Fringe (Episode: The Equation) by J.R. Orci (Screenplay) / David H. Goodman (Screenplay)
  9. The Deluge by Stephen Markley
  10. The Crimson Cipher by Susan Page Davis
Ratings for Burn Notice (Episode: Signals and Codes):
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
1/5 (1 votes)

MotifMental Illness, Autism,
MediumTelevision Series or Episode,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)