One day in late 2004, television art director Karen Steward visited the penthouse floor of a glass office building in Los Angeles to sit down with UCLA epidemiologist Sally Blower and the half dozen members of Blower's Disease Modeling Group and talk about television. Steward was enlisting Blower's scientific expertise for the third episode of the CBS drama NUMB3RS, in which an FBI agent's brother uses mathematical models to determine the origin of a mysterious outbreak of Spanish flu.

Presenting the multicolored script, "I asked her to show me graphics on her computer screen that show how to track a disease from one place to another. She just laughed at me," Steward recalls.

That's because the crux of tracking disease lies in relatively simple equations, which Blower drew out and explained for Steward on a large white...

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