# The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh – review

The Simpsons , Simon Singh says, is

"arguably the most successful

television show in history". It may

also be the most allusive: it sometimes

seems as if every aspect of the show is

a knowing reference to something

else. And sometimes it seems as if

everything else is an unknowing

reference to The Simpsons . The first

time I saw Tully Marshall's

performance as the sinister head of

Nitro Chemical in the 1942 film noir

This Gun for Hire , my immediate

reaction was: "It's Mr Burns!" A

similar thought occurred to me

watching Rupert Murdoch testify to

the Leveson inquiry . Given the depth,

or at least the breadth, of allusion in

the show, and its long-running appeal

(it has been on air since 1989), it's

little wonder that there have been so

many books along the lines of The

Simpsons and Philosophy , The

Psychology of the Simpsons etc.

But "the truth", according to Singh, "is

that many of the writers of The

Simpsons are deeply in love with

numbers, and their ultimate desire is

to drip-feed morsels of mathematics

into the subconscious minds of

viewers". "Ultimate desire" may be

pushing it, but as Singh demonstrates

in his lively book, there's no shortage

of mathematical jokes and references

scattered through the show. Whether

or not the writers of The Simpsons

are covertly using a cartoon to foist

mathematical concepts on the

unwary, Singh without question is.

The Simpsons and Their

Mathematical Secrets is a readable

and unthreatening introduction to

various mathematical concepts,

including π, e, infinity, prime

numbers, probability, topology,

Fermat's last theorem (the subject of

Singh's first book ), cryptography (the

subject of his second) and

"Ramanujan numbers", otherwise

known as "taxicab numbers" . The

latter are expressible as the sum of

two cubes in two different ways.

They're very rare; the smallest is

1729 (1 +12 and 9 +10 ), and it

crops up a lot in Futurama , the

science fiction cartoon created in

1995 by some of the minds behind

The Simpsons . It was also the number

of a taxi taken by the Cambridge

mathematician GH Hardy when he

went to visit his younger colleague

Srinivasa Ramanujan in a Putney

nursing home just after the end of the

first world war.

Singh's book is full of such anecdotes.

Some of the slightly tougher maths

meanwhile is relegated to appendices,

such as the one on "fractals and

fractional dimensions". Fractals are

"patterns that consist of self-similar

patterns at every scale. In other

words, the overall pattern associated

with an object persists as we zoom in

and out". Even those of us who find it

all a bit confusing can enjoy this

excellent joke about "the father of

fractals": Q: What does the B stand

for in Benoît B Mandelbrot? A:

Benoît B Mandelbrot.

Alongside the potted biographies of

great mathematicians are potted

biographies of the more

mathematically minded Simpsons

scriptwriters. They all follow more or

less the same pattern: captain of the

high-school maths team, an

undergraduate degree in maths or

physics from Harvard and a

postgraduate degree in maths or

computer science from Harvard,

Berkeley or Princeton before being

lured away by Hollywood.

There are occasional, not always

happy forays into other disciplines,

such as sociology. In 2005 Lawrence

Summers, the president of Harvard,

made some ill-advised remarks about

the reasons there were fewer women

than men in university science and

engineering departments, suggesting

that "issues of intrinsic aptitude" were

merely "reinforced by what are in

fact lesser factors involving

socialisation and continuing

discrimination". The Simpsons

responded in an episode called "Girls

Just Want to Have Sums", broadcast

in 2006. Principal Skinner makes

some unguarded observations about

girls being less good than boys at

maths; there's an outcry; a female

maths teacher comes in to teach the

girls ("how do numbers make you

feel?"); Lisa can't stand it and

pretends to be a boy so she can learn

some real maths; she comes top of the

class. Bart says: "The only reason

Lisa won is because she learned to

think like a boy; I turned her into a

burping, farting, bullying math

machine." Lisa says: "I did get better

at math, but it was only by

abandoning everything I believed in.

I guess the real reason we don't see

many women in math and science

is …" But then she's interrupted by a

boy playing the flute. The writers told

Singh "they did not want to deliver a

simplistic or glib conclusion", or find

themselves in "Skinner-like trouble".

But the story is pretty cringeworthy

all the same. Singh says only that "the

writers sneakily sidestepped having to

confront this controversial issue"; but

he then goes on to quote Carl

Friedrich Gauss , writing to Sophie

Germain in 1806 after discovering

that she was not, in fact, Monsieur

LeBlanc. Gauss observed that a

woman, "according to our customs

and prejudices, must encounter

infinitely more difficulties than men

to familiarise herself with these

thorny researches".

It isn't always clear who The

Simpsons and Their Mathematical

Secrets is aimed at. There are five

"examinations" at intervals through

the book. Each consists of a series of

mathematical jokes; if you get the

joke, you score the points. I passed

the "elementary", "high school" and

"university senior" tests with flying

colours, scraped through the "masters

degree" and abjectly failed the "PhD"

– though the titles of the tests must be

meant to flatter the reader, since I

gave up maths halfway through the

sixth form. Anyone who needs the

joke "We all know 'πr ', but today

'pie are justice'" spelled out to them –

"These jokes rely on the fact that 'pie'

and '' are homophones, which lends

itself to punnery" – will have given

up long before page 19.

Some of the jokes are left

unexplained, however. In "Gone

Maggie Gone" (2009) Homer has to

transport his baby (Maggie), his dog

and a bottle of poison pills across a

river in a boat that's only strong

enough to take one of them (along

with Homer) at a time. The problem

is that he can't leave the dog alone

with the baby in case it bites her, or

Maggie alone with the poison pills

unless she eats one. It's a variation

on a familiar puzzle, dating back at

least to the 8th century, when Alcuin

of York wrote it down. The first thing

he has to do is take Maggie across.

But as he's going back for either the

dog or the pills, the baby is kidnapped

by nuns. Singh doesn't explain the

joke because it doesn't need

explaining. But also because it

undermines the conjecture his book is

based on. Life, as Singh knows, isn't

reducible to mathematics; and nor is

The Simpsons .