Science Book Club Episode 10
You’ve got Homer and Lisa kind of holding your hand through their mathematical world
So my new book is The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets and the idea is that we all love The Simpsons, we all watch The Simpsons, but what we’ve never noticed before is there’s a huge amount of mathematics in the show, and that’s because a lot of the writers are mathematicians. People like David X. Cohen, people like Al Jean, Mike Reiss, a brilliant teenage mathematician, ah, Ken Keeler, Jeff Westbrook, J. Stewart Burns, all these people who love mathematics. Some of them have degrees, some of them have masters degrees, some of them have PhDs, ah, they’re no longer mathematicians, they now write comedy, they write the greatest comedy in the world. But the way they still express their love for mathematics is by putting those references, little references to equations, numbers, geometry, in The Simpsons.
So I first noticed the mathematics in The Simpsons about ten or twelve years ago, so I’ve been watching the show for years and, um, there’s an episode called The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace, where Homer wants to become an inventor, and there are two things in that episode. There’s one scene where Homer is scribbling on a blackboard and there’s various equations on the blackboard and there are two things that leapt out at me. One is an equation that seems to predict the mass of the Higgs boson. Now that is, itself, quite shocking, but you have to remember this episode was transmitted 14 years ago, way, way before the Higgs boson was really discovered so, ah, Homer’s prediction is quite large but it’s not bad at all! And it’s The Simpsons. You know, this is the weird place it’s turning up! And my PhD is in particle physics, so I spot that kind of stuff.
But also, there’s another equation on that blackboard which is a reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem. My first book was all about Fermat’s Last Theorem, so when Fermat’s Last Theorem crops up in The Simpsons, I notice it. And it’s an equation that relates to Fermat’s Last Theorem but is a very clever false solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem. It’s been very cleverly engineered, by David X. Cohen in that particular case. So I, ah, found out about this equation, I looked a bit deeper, I found other equations and before you know it you realise there’s a ton of mathematics in The Simpsons.
So that I find that, ah, I work on the assumption that everybody loves The Simpsons, OK, so the book is for all of those people and those people who are also nerds and geeks. Nerds and geeks like me. Nerds and geeks like the writers who write The Simpsons. It’s for people curious about maths and maybe who want to know more about mathematics but haven’t really had the chance in the past. You know, you’ve got Homer and Lisa kind of holding your hand through their mathematical world, so I think it’s a very gentle introduction to mathematics. And also, you know, teenagers of course…I’ve met a load of teenagers who obviously love The Simpsons and who are keen on maths and for them it’s a way of going beyond their school curriculum. So it’s been really lovely. I love, ah, when you work on a book you spend years sat at home thinking about these ideas and then you go out on the road and two nice things happen. One nice thing is that you find out that people like your book, which is great! And you get to meet these people.
You know, I’ve met people who’ve said, not necessarily about this book but typically they’ll say, you know, ‘I read Fermat’s Last Theorem when I was 17 and now I’m doing a PhD in astronomy’ or at the other end of spectrum you meet people who said, ‘Oh, I hated maths when I was at school but I read your book and it really got me excited’. In fact, just this evening there was a woman who came up to me at the interval and said, ‘Don’t like The Simpsons. Don’t like maths. Loved your talk!’ So, you know, that for me is really what it’s all about.
Buy The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets in hardback here