Fans of the hugely successful cartoon TV programme The Simpsons, may, or may not be aware of the continued theme of mathematics, running through the 25 series. In fact, even in the first ever episode, baby Maggie is spotted playing with some building blocks, which she, by accident, stacks up to spell EMCSQU. She’s only gone and solved Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2.
For geeky mathematics fans, the show has been an absolute delight, with viewers searching for cleverly embedded references to math equations, subtle nods to well known theorems and cleverly concealed conjectures. And all with a massive dose of humour.
In his latest book, The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets, former physicist turned author Simon Singh reveals the sheer wit and intelligence of the shows’ writers, with several of them obtaining advanced degrees.
In his book, Singh recalls episodes in which anything from pi to perfect numbers, Fermat’s Last Theorem. the riddle of P v. NP, narcissistic numbers and Mersenne primes to Euler’s equation is explored.
But for those of us to which the above is complete gobbledygook, Simon Singh takes us behind the geeky references and sheds light on the complex mathematical equations, and gives a glorious insight into the humour of the writers.
Singh has spent 8 years putting together the many mathematical references in this book, and in an attempt to get school children interested in the subject, he is now taking the book into schools.
Singh said: “I spotted a reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem in an episode, so I started looking at who’s responsible for this. It was David S Cohen. He’s got a masters in computer science. And then you realise there are others: Al Jean has a degree in maths from Harvard; Ken Keeler and Jeff Westbrook have PhDs in applied maths. The more I looked for references, the more I found. It’s something the hardcore fans have been spotting over the years.”
And funnily enough, Singh looks a little like one of the series heroes, Bart, with his spiked up hair in a gooky style. But it is primarily the humour that underpins the maths references that got Singh’s interest piqued, for example: “Take Fermat’s Last Theorem. You can’t solve that equation, that’s been proven, yet Homer apparently does.”
And the writers of the series have also taken a keen interest into who has spotted their many intricate nods to complex theories, as Singh recalls: “The viewers won’t necessarily spot it but the writers are keen to discover who does. They’ll look on the internet to see if anybody is talking about it and, sure enough, some people are. They got a real kick out of planting a mathematical prank and seeing people pick up on it.”
Singh thinks that this successful TV series is the ideal way to get children interested in maths: “I’m going to a school in Hounslow. Last week we spoke about infinity, which crops up in Futurama and The Simpsons. Can I use that to engage them with quite complex maths? And does it make them feel a bit prouder being the nerdy kid when they realise the writers of The Simpsons are?” He adds: “Over the next two months I want to start creating a lesson plan for teachers. There is a real opportunity for them to use this material.”
Singh thinks that episodes such as the one where Apu is being disgraced in court is an ideal example of how to cement a theory in the minds of children: “Everyone learns about pi at school. There’s an example when Apu is testifying in court because Marge has been accused of theft. The attorney tries to discredit Apu and says: ‘You’ve got a terrible memory, we can’t rely on you.’ Apu replies: ‘No, I’ve got a fantastic memory, I can remember pi to 40,000 digits and the 40,000th decimal place is 1.'”
Singh has met some pretty hefty ball players in the line of his work, including Stephen Hawking, but he says that meeting the Simpsons writers was a real coup for him: “I spent a week with them, talking to the mathematicians on the writing team, and went to a read-through. It was a real privilege. I’ve interviewed Stephen Hawking, the world chess champion Garry Kasparov and I’ve been to the top of volcanoes. But meeting The Simpsons writers is on a par with all of that.”
The writer is the best selling author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and The Big Bang, and now The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh is also available.