The Simpsons have been on our screens for over a quarter of a century. Whilst some might argue that the quality of the show has begun to tail off (not me; I still love it), its tremendous contribution to pop culture is obvious. What might not be so obvious is that over the course of 550 (and counting) episodes, the writers have been exposing an audience millions to deeply complex mathematics, without them really knowing about it.
From the very first episode, the writers have been sneaking in maths jokes with incredible density and regularity. The jokes are always made so they never get in the way of the story line: if you don’t get the gag about Homer finding a (pseudo-)solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, the 40,000th decimal place of pi (it’s 1), or Loew’s ℵ-plex, your enjoyment of the show isn’t spoiled.
A good example of a maths-related ‘freeze-frame gag’ is when the numbers 8191, 8128 and 8208 are shown on the jumbotron at a baseball game in the episode ‘Marge and Homer Turn a Couple Play’. The numbers could just as well be arbitrarily chosen – and to casual audience member it can appear that way – but each number has been carefully chosen: the first is a Mersenne Prime, the second a perfect number and the third is a narcissistic number.
In The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, popular maths writer (and fighter against the British Chiropractic Association and UK's ludicrous libel laws, Simon Singh, delves into the many esoteric maths jokes peppered not so randomly as it happens throughout the show, and, in his own inimitable way, explains just what makes a number narcissistic, why infinity + 1 = infinity and exactly why an innocuous sounding version of Pythagoras’ theorem, spouted by Homer after he puts on Henry Kissinger's glasses after fishing them out of the toilet, is so interesting.
Almost a third of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets is devoted to Matt Groening’s cult sci-fi spin off, Futurama, which took the mathematic japery to fantastic new heights. Through the adventures of Fry, Bender and the rest of the crew of the Planet Express, the writers were able to weave numbers not just into sight-gags and sketches, but build whole episodes around esoteric mathematical ideas.
The best example of this, which also illustrates just how deep the writers’ mathematical ability and love goes, is the 2010 episode ‘Prisoner of Benda’, for which writer Ken Keeler (who has a PhD in applied mathematics) developed an equation from scratch (dubbed the Futurama Theorum), to resolve an episode where several characters undergo mind-body swaps. This wasn’t a storyline built around maths, but a whole new mathematical proof built just for the storyline.
What sets The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets apart from other pop-maths books is that in looking into why there are so many maths references in the Simpsons and Futurama, the book functions as a biographical history of two of the most critically acclaimed TV shows of all time. Writers with exceptional mathematical abilities have been with the show right from its inception, and many of the writers on the show left successful careers as theoretical and applied mathematicians to join the writing team. The connection between mathematics and comedy may not be immediately obvious but they are strongly connected by logic, and in the case of comedy, breaking and playing with that logic. In learning about how the writers snuck a gag in about pi we learn not just about irrational numbers but also get a first-hand, behind-the-scenes look at how the comedy writing process works.
Some of the maths references in both Futurama and the Simpsons are so well hidden, or require such a high level of mathematical ability, that it has to be more about the writers indulging themselves (which they are, of course, perfectly entitled to do), rather than being a genuine attempt at 'influencing a new generation of people' as David X. Cohen suggests. That said, it inspired Simon Singh to write this book, so perhaps I’m just being a little unfair.
A fun, funny and informative book, The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets shows that in the Simpsons (and Futurama!) it appears as though there's no such thing as a 'random' number.
I got to see Simon’s talk about the book at the University of Oslo’s Science library’s second anniversary celebration event. It was a fantastically entertaining talk and I had the privilege of hanging out with him at the Oslo Skeptics in the Pub event afterwards. I asked him about what motivated his move away from academia (he has a PhD in article physics) and he said he realised he ‘just wasn’t that good at it’ and that his real talents lay elsewhere. This made me feel a little bit better about the crossroads I’m facing myself as I reflect on what kinds of career choices to make now that I’m two years post-postdoc – but that’s a blog post for another time.