The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh – review

25.10.2013 16:11

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 .