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The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets

Simon Singh

(London Times)

Matt Groening's animation of the world's most famous yellow-hued, four-fingered dysfunctional family, The Simpsons, is the longest-running sitcom in American television. It is also, as Simon Singh reveals in this enjoyable study of the many mathematical jokes that have been smuggled into the series over its 24-year history, the nerdiest television programme ever made.

Cryptic mathematical jokes have lurked on-screen since the programme's beginning. Look carefully at the second episode, and you'll see Maggie, the family's baby, spelling out E=mc2 in alphabet blocks ("EMCSQU"). Singh uncovers a host of fascinating moments such as this in the show, and travels to meet the Simpsons' writers at work. Much of his book, though, is devoted (admirably, but much less thrillingly) to explaining some of the maths behind the Simpsons' gags, taking in everything from probability to prime numbers.

The reason for the programme's tradition of mathematically minded quips, Singh explains, is that many of the series's writers have come not from the cellars of New York's stand-up comedy clubs, but from Princeton and Harvard, where they came away with PhDs and masters degrees in mathematics and computer science. Two of the show's first writers, Mike Reiss and Al Jean, met while studying maths at Harvard, where they wrote for the university's satirical magazine. After being hired on the Simpsons' original writing team, they became executive producers of the show, and invited hordes of other mathematicians to write for the series. It became almost an in-house game to sneak as many geeky jokes into the cartoon as possible.

For instance, when Homer Simpson briefly becomes an inventor in a 1998 episode, he can be glimpsed in front of a blackboard containing three equations. Nobody but the most hardened brainiac could possibly spot their relevance: one predicts the mass of the Higgs boson, another governs the density of the universe, and another appears to show Homer solving Fermat's Last Theorem. (In fact, his solution is out by the tiniest fraction.)

Singh, himself the author of a bestseller about Fermat's Last Theorem, offers an entertaining picture in this book of the insanely high-minded nature of the Simpsons' writers (a recent scriptwriting session, we learn, descended into a fight over binomial distribution). But he often trips unwittingly over his own geekery: "To appreciate this joke," he tells us, "it is first necessary to remind ourselves of the value of Pi." Groan.

Compare that to the series's blissfully nerdy humour when Homer, in 1995, slips out of the cartoon's two dimensions. "Well," comments a scientist character, Professor Frink. "It should be obvious to even the most dimwitted individual, who holds an advanced degree in hyperbolic topology, that Homer Simpson has stumbled into ... the third dimension."

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