Book Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

Bart's Dog Gets an F10

“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.

SimpsonsMathematicalSecretsThe 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.

7 Responses to “Book Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets”

  1. 1 Frank
    30 October 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Simon Singh seems like a likeable fellow indeed!
    I do like learning about the mathematical inside jokes and easter eggs throughout the series.

    I did find though that toward the end of Futurama, the writers became too self-aware and instead of inserting math jokes into a good episode, they tried too hard to build an episode around a mathematical concept. Also by the sixth season all the characters were Flanderized so that added to the suck.

    I mean look at the joke quoted for this post – Dr. Hibbert tries to console her, but he is too smart to relate to an 8-year-old and describes more complicated mathematical concepts (for a 2nd grader). It’s not about the math, it’s about a well-intentioned genius failing miserably at consoling a child. The math is a great inside joke, but the true, timeless joke is about the failed attempt at consolation.

    • 31 October 2014 at 10:49 am

      Singh was a minor tv celebrity maybe 8 or 9 years ago for a brief spell in the UK. He appeared in a few documentaries and on all the comedy quiz shows basically as the token eccentric smart guy. It got a little grating actually, there was a bit of a whimsey to personality imbalance. Everything about him seemed to be saying “hey, aren’t I just sooooo wacky?”. I’d like to think his writing is a little better (especially since there’s not that same performative aspect) but I can’t say this write-up was all that encouraging (Chapter 0, how wacky is that?).

  2. 3 Stan
    30 October 2014 at 4:25 pm

    “dick measuring contests”

    I wonder if you know how many languages, besides English, recently employ the same comparison connotation…

    (Also, fuck math, linguistics is the shit my good man.)

    • 4 Frank
      30 October 2014 at 9:01 pm

      i think that’s a relatively new expression in the in-your-face era of the late 20th and 21st century.
      i’m more familiar with the term “comparing battle scars”, but that’s more about who had it harder.

      • 5 Stan
        30 October 2014 at 11:05 pm

        Yeah, a neologism perhaps. I’ve seen it in use in Europe (Dutch and German), but this is the first time an American uses it. Even in Quebec French that would sound… croche.

  3. 30 October 2014 at 11:36 pm

    My friend Jeff is a math professor and Simpsons fan. Nice book btw, might see it on goodreads and awesome that someone from across the pond sent you this book.

  4. 31 October 2014 at 11:38 am

    All I know about math and TV shows is apparently the body swapping episode from Futurama invented a new math theorem and Silicon Valley’s “jerk off” formula is legit.

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