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# Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

## By Simon Singh

Hardback (other formats)

RRP £18.99

Our price: £15.19

You save: £3.80

In stock, usually despatched within 24 hours.

# Trade review

# Book Details

Publisher: |
---|

Bloomsbury Publishing |

Publication Date: |

10-Oct-2013 |

ISBN: |

9781408835302 |

# Guardian review

the guardian Thu 24 October 2013

*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 , 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^{3}+12^{3} and 9^{3}+10^{3}), 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 'r^{2}', 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*.

# Guardian review

the guardian Thu 24 October 2013

*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 , 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^{3}+12^{3} and 9^{3}+10^{3}), 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 'r^{2}', 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*.