Have you ever felt that episodes of “The Simpsons” or “Futurama” are speaking to you personally and intellectually? Do you identify with Lisa Simpson and Bender the robot? Aside from the small concern that you are anthropomorphizing animated pictures, Simon Singh, author of “The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets,” says that this is not an uncommon feeling among students in math and sciences.
If you were to ask Singh, he’d probably tell you 1) that you’re a huge nerd, and 2) that the writers of both these TV shows intended to connect with viewers just like you. In a talk Monday eveningpresented by the OFA’s Learning from Performers program and the Harvard Math Department,Singh said that by writing math jokes and subtle references to theorems, the writers of these TV shows are sending a signal to those who get it: math really is exciting, and numbers can be a source of humor if you’re smart enough to get the connections.
Singh’s endeavor to uncover and explain the math jokes in the TV shows he loves started nine years ago, when he saw a particular “Simpsons” episode. “I was watching an episode called‘Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,’ and in [it] there’s a reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem,” Singh says. “There’s an equation which would have passed everybody else by—just a bunch of complicated numbers.”
Singh, however, had just written a bestselling book called “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” Fermat, a 17th-century mathematician, is well-known among mathematicians for supposedly coming up with advanced conclusions to complicated problems and yet never writing down any of the actual proofs. Instead, he wrote in his notebook that he could, if he had the time, write a proof to back his conclusions, but that he was just too busy. Since Fermat’s death in 1665, mathematicians have indeed proven many of his theorems; Fermat’s Last Theorem, however, remained unproven until 1995. When that same equation appeared in more than one “Simpsons” episode, Singh started to pay attention and realized that the writers of the series might be much more mathematically minded than he’d thought.
Upon further research, Singh found that the writers did indeed have a rigorous background in numbers. David X. Cohen ’88, a writer for “The Simpsons” and producer/writer of “Futurama,” studied physics at Harvard and was the president of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Writer Al Jean ’81 studied math at Harvard, where he met Mike Reiss ’81; the two collaborated first on The Harvard Lampoon, and then on “The Simpsons” after moving to L.A. post-graduation. Ken Keeler ’83, one of the writers on “Futurama,” studied applied math at Harvard and stayed to get his PhD in 1990.
Many episodes of both “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” include math jokes: the movie theater in “The Simpsons” is called Googolplex, and in one of the first credit runs of a “Simpsons” episode, Maggie spells out “EeqMCsq” with her blocks. For one of Apu’s lines, the writers wanted to make him appear to be a secret math genius and have him mention the 40,000th digit of pi; to get the number correct, they had NASA scientist David H. Bailey mail them 40,000 digits of pi, printed out on thousands of sheets of paper (and in case you’re wondering, the 40,000th digit is 1).
Singh also mentioned that for one of the more complicated episodes of “Futurama,” in which characters systematically switched minds, Keeler actually had to prove an entirely new theorem in order to end the episode. He proved that for any number of people in a room trading minds with a “no backsies” rule, if one were to add two more bodies to the original number, it would be possible to return each character’s mind to the correct body.
Singh himself is quite brainy when it comes to numbers. In 1991, he received a Ph.D. in particle physics—and then ended up in the world of writing and television. “The majority of my career has been communicating science rather than doing science,” Singh says. In the past 22 years Singh has been a TV producer for the BBC, a math teacher, a documentary director, a nonfiction writer, and an enthusiastic cryptologist. In all aspects of his career, Singh has had to explain complicated math concepts in an accessible way.
He says it is easy to create enthusiasm and explain complicated math topics when he himself finds the subject matter so intriguing. “I always pick subjects that, one, I understand and two, I think I can make the bright, curious, general reader understand as well,” Singh says. “Learning to explain things with clarity and brevity on television is really tough compared to writing. Writing is trivial compared to TV, which is why I suppose I have such admiration for ‘The Simpsons’ writers because they’re working in a medium that is very unforgiving, and they’ve been succeeding for 25 years.”
—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
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