Books · Science

Book review: The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets

If I tried to tell you when I acquired this book, I would fail. It seems like its been on my shelves, waiting patiently, for quite some time, but exactly how long is a mystery. I have a bad habit of putting books off for all kinds of reasons, and since this is a mathematics book, it’s possible that I was putting it off because, as a physics student, I felt I was doing quite enough mathematics as it was. However, eventually, I gave in and opened it.

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The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

I’m not much of a Simpsons fan, it must be said. Not that I dislike the show, just that I didn’t grow up watching it religiously, as so many people my age did. I’ve probably seen about 10% of the episodes (and a similar number for Futurama, which I like much better). Fortunately, Simon Singh doesn’t let a lack of familiarity with the cartoon get in the way of communicating the mathematics.

It seems the writers of The Simpsons are big ole nerds. I mean that in the best possible way, of course. Among them are physicists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians, all tempted away from academia by the allure of comedy writing, all sneakily crowbar-ing mathematics jokes into their episodes wherever they can. Singh spots the jokes, calls attention to them, and then explains the mathematics that underpins them.

This creates a curious effect. It’s a well-known fact that if you explain a joke, you destroy the humour. Somehow, Singh manages to avoid this. He strings you along, having you follow the story of the maths, carefully teaching you the ideas, and then returning to the joke so that you can appreciate it anew. The episodes remain funny, it’s just that you’re smarter now.

Topics covered include Fermat’s Last Theorem, Fractals, Prime Numbers, P vs NP, Euler’s equation, perfect numbers and more. There’s talk of Baseball statistics, topologies and exponential growth and it all works. These are the kind of things that, as a physics PhD, I’m expected to have at least a loose grasp on, and mostly I do, but with the benefit of Singh’s explanations and stories, I’ve found the ideas much more memorable than I did before. Although, I should say that anyone with high school mathematics ought to be able to follow everything in the book.

I tend to read more pop-sci than pop-math, although clearly there’s some overlap. So this marks only the second mathematics book I’ve read for fun (the first being Tim Revel’s brilliant Man vs Maths) and I have to say I enjoyed it. I might even admit to being tempted to read a third.

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