Review – Simon Singh – The Simpsons and the Mathematical Secrets

Whether we’re particularly fond of the show or not, we’re all familiar with the American animated sitcom, ‘The Simpsons’. It is the original animated sitcom, which proved to American audiences (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the British), that cartoons can be for grownups too, and without ‘The Simpsons’ to blaze that trail, we probably wouldn’t have shows like ‘South Park’ and ‘Family Guy’ today. But if somebody were to tell you there’s more to ‘The Simpsons’ than a simple-minded drunken lout routinely throttling his son, that there is, in fact, a fascinating degree of intelligent, mathematical humour involved in the show, you’d probably be a little skeptical. Thankfully, mathematician and author of the new book ‘The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets’, Simon Singh was here to show us just how clever the writers on ‘The Simpsons’ really are.

You may remember Simon Singh from such lawsuits as British Chiropractic Association v. Singh, or such Guardian articles as ‘Beware the Spinal Tap’, and books like ‘Trick or Treatment?’ — co-authored with Edzard Ernst, who spoke at last year’s Skeptics on the Fringe. Anyone in skepticism will be well aware of Mr. Singh’s efforts to bring about libel law reform in England. But you may be less aware of Mr. Singh’s written works in mathematics, such as ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’, which tells the story of the search for a proof of Fermat’s last theorem (an + bn = cn), first conjectured by Pierre de Fermat in 1637. It was with Fermat’s last theorem that Mr. Singh introduced us to the fascinating and amusing story of mathematical jokes in The Simpsons, a show that evidently has enough qualified mathematicians writing for it that no less than two of them to have had work published in major mathematical journals. Fermat’s last theorem is believed to be unsolvable where n = 3 or more; only when n = 2 can c be whole number. But in at least two episodes of The Simpsons, possible solutions have been presented — solutions that both work on a standard calculator, with its limited decimal places. It is only with more sophisticated mathematics that it has been determined that, while the results given are very close, they are not quite whole numbers. Essentially, The Simpsons was trolling any mathematicians in the audience. Mr. Singh revealed that, throughout its 25-year run, The Simpsons has been full of subtle mathematical humour — the kind of jokes that only a mathematician would get — and writers like David S. Cohen (now known as David X. Cohen since beginning his work on ‘Futurama’) have taken special care to ensure that any maths in the show is accurate. Similar mathematical jokes have been carried over into ‘Futurama’, as well — notably the recurring use of the highest known perfect number, 137,438,691,328, and the Hardy–Ramanujan number, 1729 — the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways: 1729 = 13 + 123 = 93 + 103.

Mr. Singh’s talk was a fascinating insight into the intelligence and wit of the writers on ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Futurama’. He really demonstrated how people like Cohen, who have a mathematical background, know how to subtly and cleverly incorporate mathematical humour into the script, expanding the general appeal of the show beyond the average viewer, creating a cartoon sitcom that truly does have something for everyone. It was a full talk with time only for a couple of questions at the end, but the audience certainly made their appreciation for Mr. Singh and his insights felt. Overall, it was a truly inspiring discussion that, at the very least, has this reviewer interested in going back to watch ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Futurama’ to see if I can spot any of the things that Mr. Singh told us about.