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Review of "The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets" by

A book which is both entertaining and informative. No advanced maths required!

10 April 2017

I have watched The Simpsons cartoon series ever since our family first got Sky television in the early 1990's. It is the only television series where I ask my family to record every new episode.

One of the most appealing aspects of The Simpsons is the layers of depth in the humour. While some of the jokes are immediately accessible even to children, others require real knowledge to be appreciated.

The joke I always used to illustrate this is the time that grandpa Simpson reminisced “I was spanked by Grover Cleveland on two non-consecutive occasions.” You will not appreciate this joke unless you know that Grover Cleveland is the only president of the United States who served for two terms without those terms being consecutive. (Benjamin Harrison was the president in between Cleveland’s two terms.)

On many occasions, I have noticed mathematical formulae casually appearing on screen for a second or so without actually being part of the story. The one I remember best is seeing the following equation:

e + 1 = 0

This is Euler’s Identity. I have always found it particularly beautiful because it combines in one equation:

  • e which is a transcendental number that is the base of the natural logarithms
  • i which is the square root of minus one
  • π which is the most famous transcendental number giving the ratio between the circumference of a circle and the diameter.
  • 1 which is the first positive whole number, and is the only number which when you multiply a number by it leaves that number unchanged.
  • 0 which is the only number which when you add it to a number leaves that number unchanged.

While the properties of 1 and 0 mentioned above sound trivial, they lie at the heart of mathematics.

Accordingly, when I saw that the popular science writer Simon Singh had written a book about mathematics in the Simpsons, I bought it immediately.

About the book

The book is a short 230-page paperback. It is very easy to read and requires no advanced mathematical knowledge.

One of the things you learn from it is that the writing team at the Simpsons has always contained a very large number of people with advanced degrees in mathematics, including some with PhD’s. That probably explains why they enjoy sneaking mathematical jokes into the series.

As well as giving you an easily readable history of how mathematics came into the Simpsons, the book is very amusing to read. I have included a few snippets below for illustration.

On page 66 there is a cartoon where Lisa has become manager of the Isotots Little League baseball team. She is preparing by reading books with titles such as e + 1 = 0 mentioned above and “Schrödinger’s Bat” which is an amusing blending of Schrödinger’s cat and a baseball bat.

On page 82 is:

a spoof history of mathematics education known as ‘The Evolution of a Mathematical Problem’:

1960: a lumberjack sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of this price. What is his profit?

1970: a lumberjack sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of this price, or in other words $80. What is his profit?

1980: a lumberjack sells a truckload of wood for $100. His cost of production is $80, and his profit is $20. Your assignment: underline the number 20.

1990: by cutting down beautiful forest trees, a lumberperson makes $20. What do you think of his or her way of making a living? In your group, discuss how the forest birds and squirrels feel, and write an essay about it.”

Pages 88 and 89 contain a high school examination paper comprising some jokes which I have reproduced a few:

Q: what are the 10 kinds of people in the world?
A: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

Q: what is the volume of a pizza of thickness “a” and radius “z”?
A: pi.z.z.a

Q: what do you get if you cross a mosquito with a mountain climber?
A: you cannot cross a vector with a scalar.

The book also contains a chapter about the birth of the television series Futurama and the occurrence of mathematics in it, a chapter on Mobius strips and another chapter on fractals.

Concluding comments

While the book is very difficult to summarise, I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to be entertained while at the same time learning something.

Kindle edition above


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