“What’s your favorite subject?” – Dr. Hibbert
“Arithmetic.” – Lisa Simpson
“Oh, arithmetic. Now, before you know it, you will be back among your polygons, your hypotenuse, and your Euclidean algorithms.” – Dr. Hibbert
As an academic subject, math has always stood at the extreme end, as the hardest of the “hard” sciences. Even physics has uncertainty built right into it; math simply has things that have not yet been proven. That’s all well and good for mathematicians when it comes to inter-disciplinary dick measuring contests, but it also makes math more abstract and difficult to explain to the uninitiated. Worse still, that very “purity” makes math more resistant to analogy and simplification than any other field of study because the big things in math are irreducibly incomprehensible.
The physics of a black hole, the biochemistry of a chameleon, the geology of a volcano, years of study and graduate degrees lend the best possible understanding of them, but the basics can be grasped by anyone. Textbooks, TV specials, and museum exhibits can contain simple diagrams and awe-inspiring pictures that make even hideously complicated events and processes seem kindergarten simple. Math is too abstract for that kind of stuff. You can come up with pretty visualizations of prime numbers, for example, but someone who doesn’t have a day-to-day familiarity with them or their underlying concepts isn’t going to understand it in the least. Prime numbers can’t be analogized to anything else, nor can they be simplified (almost by definition), you simply have to use them a lot to really get them, and most people don’t.
That abstract unfamiliarity has always been the great bane of popular writing about math. The most fundamental concepts exist only on sheets of paper or inside someone else’s mind, so all an expert writing for a lay audience can do is cite fun examples and hope that at least some of them click. Wisely, Simon Singh’s The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets follows exactly that template, and does so rather well.
The book isn’t a grand explanation of math or its history, it’s a collection of math concepts and back-stories that have surfaced in The Simpsons or Futurama over the years. Singh naturally focuses on the many writers (of both shows) who have serious academic credentials, and we even get pictures of both Al Jean and Mike Reiss with their high school math clubs.
The best parts of the book are the ones that directly combine the shows and the numbers. For example, in the chapter about pi, there’s a long discussion of Apu testifying against Marge in “Marge in Chains”. When Apu says that he can recite pi to forty-thousand places, that was indeed the record for memorization of pi at the time.
Further, and I certainly didn’t know this, the 40,000th digit really is 1. They literally sent away to a guy at NASA, who printed out the whole thing and mailed it to them. (That, in turn, was referenced in “22 Short Films About Springfield”, when Moe sent away to NASA to calculate Barney’s bar tab.) There’s a whole chapter about the various equations and numbers that pop up in the “Homer3″ segment of “Treehouse of Horror VI”, and another dedicated to the smart kids in “Bart the Genius”.
Later in the book, Singh gets into Futurama and the many (many) math heavy jokes, references, and even entire plots they went through. Like The Simpsons sections, some of these are dedicated to the general nerdery of the show, while others are about specific concepts and equations. The best of them is about “The Prisoner of Benda”, the episode that famously led Ken Keeler to write a proof of the “brain switching” problem the writers created for themselves. It’s a really clear explanation, and there’s even a picture of Keeler standing on the office couch, scribbling away on a white board.
Since the book is by necessity somewhat scattershot in the subjects it can broach, some parts are weaker than others. In particular, one of the longest chapters in the book is little more than a rehash of Moneyball, (based on that crashingly dull Zombie Simpsons episode “MoneyBART“). True, there’s math and the Simpsons here; but when the text gets to the 2002 Yankees buying up all the players, it’s wandered pretty far from the subject at hand.
Happily, though, most of the chapters are much shorter and on point. The trickier concepts are explained cleanly, and illustrated where necessary or possible. And Singh manages to walk the line of keeping the tone light while simultaneously keeping the math serious. You can always tell someone is a real math and/or programming geek when they start things with 0 instead of 1, as confusing as that is to most people. But while this book starts with “Chapter 0″, it also has an “Eπlogue”, and that balance is maintained throughout.
All in all, it’s a short and easy read that will either introduce (or refresh) a lot of mathematical ideas for casual readers. And along the way you’ll even learn some Simpsons and Futurama trivia, what’s not to like?
Note: Thanks go to Diana Morgan at Ruth Killick Publicity for sending me a copy all the way from merry old England.