Review: The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

 

While I can claim no expertise in mathematics, I do claim to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on The Simpsons. My lifelong love affair began in 1996, when my own family moved to the US shortly before the world’s favourite animated family began their eighth season. It was a simpler time: televisions were large and heavy and beamed out a mere 100 channels whose shows had to be recorded on a VHS in order to be viewed again. In the case of The Simpsons, though, I was quite prepared to watch every episode – at least two and sometimes six a night – at the appointed time.

So let’s see, then. If we take an average of four shows a night, multiplied over my six years of pre-university adolescence, plus the odd box set during my 20s, we have… Er… Hmm. As Homer Simpson said while trying to calculate the number of hours between nine and five, “10, 11, denominator…”

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical SecretsI can’t do this vague equation, but I know a man who can. His name is Simon Singh. Like all good physics graduates, Singh is fond of The Simpsons. In The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, he tries to prove that without mathematics, The Simpsonswould never have lasted into this, its 27th season.

That’s not because the scripts feature a lot of mathematics. Far from it: as Singh’s title suggests, and as he points out in the book, most of the show’s best maths references are oblique, or quick, or both. In fact, most come in the form of what are known as freeze-frame gags. That is, you’d have to pause the action to catch the equation in the background, as in the most mathematical episode, “Homer3”, from “Treehouse of Horror VI”. No, what makes maths so indispensable to the success of The Simpsons is that so many of the writers are maths or physics graduates.

It might seem strange that mathematics can lend itself to writing a critically acclaimed and ground-breaking animated comedy, but as the long-serving writer and Futurama co-creator David S. Cohen told Singh, whether finding a joke or proving a theorem, “intuition tells you if your time is being invested in a profitable area.” Furthermore, the rigours of a mathematics or physics degree are good preparation for writing an episode. “It sounds fun and easy,” says Cohen, “but there’s a lot of pounding your head against the wall.”

Just as The Simpsons contains more slapstick than statistics (good luck spotting the Mersenne prime that appears in the episode “Homer and Marge Turn a Couple Play”), so some of the chapters of Singh’s book actually contain relatively few words about The Simpsons. Take chapter 11, ‘Freeze-Frame Mathematics’, which Singh begins by discussing those blink-of-an-eye gags that The Simpsons writers so adore. The chapter is 11.5 pages long. The first five pages concern The Simpsons, as does the final paragraph, or quarter of a page. In between are 6.25 pages on the number e, which, as noted in the conclusion to the 2010 Simpsons Christmas special “The Fight Before Christmas”, is not a letter, but a number, “whose exponential function is the derivative of itself.” Singh does his best to bring e and compound interest to life, but, being a Simpsons fan first and a maths fan 129th, I felt somewhat like the Springfield kids watching the first episode of ‘The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie’ show. Just as the violent cat-and-mouse duo (or, as one of the writers puts it, “dramaturgical dyad”) are about to reach the fireworks factory, they are side-tracked by the hackneyed quips and unfunny boisterousness of Poochie the dog (voiced by Homer). “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” asks Millhouse pleadingly. “Oh, when is Singh going to get back to The Simpsons?” I asked myself as I read about some mildly interesting mathematical concepts that happen to bear the name ‘Simpson’.

Fortunately, most (but certainly not all) chapters have the right balance of Simpsons maths references and explanations of the mathematics involved. Singh writes with a winning combination of dry wit and modest erudition, as well as boyhood wonderment at being granted inside access to the writing team behind his beloved show. That said, it’s odd that while he found no room to analyse the failed attempts of the “Mathemagician” in “Grade School Confidential” to make a remainder disappear, Singh does spend three chapters talking aboutFuturama.

Yes, nearly a sixth of the book is on a different animated series. I understand that Futurama is the mathematical heir to The Simpsons, and was created by Simpsons founders Matt Groening and David S. Cohen, but there is more than enough maths in the original show to make this tangent unnecessary. Where, for example, is an explanation of the Venn diagram Lisa makes in “Grift of the Magi”? What about the many references to the metric system (“Hmm. Sounded large when I ordered it,” says Mr Burns in “Who Shot Mr Burns Part I” after the 1000g weight he drops on Homer’s head has little impact. “Oh, I’ll never make head nor tail of these metric booby traps.”)? How in the name of the Almighty could Singh make no mention of the episode “Thank God Its Doomsday”, in which Homer uses a series of elaborate and absurd equations to incorrectly predict the Apocalypse? And, given the emphasis on fractions in the new National Curriculum in England, where is the reference to Nelson’s offer to help Lisa cheat on her fractions test in “Lisa Gets an A”: “I’ll give you the numerators free, but the denominators are gonna cost you”?

One Simpsons maths reference that Singh does find room for can help summarise his book. In the episode “Gone Maggie Gone”, Homer has to figure out how to transport his baby Maggie, the family dog and some poison across a river one at a time, without leaving his the dog with the poison, or his baby with the dog. It is a nod to the wolf-goat-cabbage river puzzle created by the 8th century intellectual Alcuin of York. Like Homer, Singh struggles, but succeeds. If you like both mathematics and The Simpsons, you will love this book. If you like only mathematics, you will be equally entertained. If, however, you cannot find anything remotely exciting about, say, infinity, but love The Simpsons, you will laugh just enough to make it to make it across the proverbial river of numbers.


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