AS a mathematician, I have occasionally noticed mathematical references in The Simpsons, but I was surprised to hear that Simon Singh had boldly proclaimed that it is “the most mathematical TV show ever” — surely he was exaggerating.
Surprisingly not, as I and an audience of 250 discovered during the course of a talk by the author and mathematician last week.
Singh was giving the 2014 Berkeley Lecture, an annual talk in the area of mathematics and philosophy at NUI Maynooth. He began by listing some philosophical nuggets from the mind of Homer Simpson, including, “All my life I’ve had one dream — to achieve my many goals,” and “But Marge, what if we chose the wrong religion? Each week we just make God madder and madder.”
Singh then mentioned some mathematics that has appeared in The Simpsons. The local cinema is the Googolplex. A googolplex is one of the largest named numbers in mathematics (1 followed by many more zeros than could fit in every newspaper in the world).
The title of Lisa Simpson’s book in one episode is an equation known as Euler’s identity, often described as the most beautiful equation in mathematics.
The equation P=NP is mentioned in one episode: This is shorthand for a problem so fiendishly difficult that if you can resolve it, you will be instantly famous and win a prize of $1m.
Why are such references included? Al Jean and Mike Reiss, two of the writers since the very beginning, have backgrounds in mathematics as well as comedy writing. Jean and Reiss subsequently recruited other mathematically inclined individuals to join The Simpsons writing team.
How can The Simpsons feature so much mathematics without most of us being aware of it? From the beginning, the writers were given free rein to include references of interest to them as long as they did not distract from the comedy. Many details are only present briefly in the background. Some true fans discover such details with extensive use of the pause button.!
After giving the above and many other examples of mathematics in The Simpsons, Singh went on to talk about Futurama, the other well-known animated series by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. For this show, Groening collaborated with David X Cohen, a physicist who loves mathematics — and it shows.
One amusing Futurama example is an homage to the chilling REDRUM/MURDER scene in The Shining. Bender the robot must spend one night in an eerie castle to inherit it. He is unconcerned when the binary number 0101100101 (357 in decimal) spontaneously appears on the wall in blood-red writing. However, when he sees it reflected in the mirror as 1010011010 (666 in decimal), he runs from the room screaming.
Futurama is probably the only TV show that inspired a mathematical theorem to resolve a plot point. In one episode, some characters swap minds using a hi-tech machine, but later want their minds back in their own bodies. However, the brain’s immune system prevents minds from being swapped back directly. Can indirect swapping using third parties result in every mind being eventually swapped back into its own body? One of the writers, Ken Keeler, proved that this is possible if the mind-swappers get help from two people whose minds have not yet been swapped. The proof appears on a blackboard in this episode. Google “Futurama theorem” to learn more.
The number 1729 occurs frequently in Futurama. This is a reference to a story involving Srinivasa Ramanujan, perhaps the most naturally gifted mathematician of the 20th century. From humble beginnings, and with no formal training, Ramanujan made remarkable mathematical discoveries. He was brought to Cambridge where he worked for almost five years before he became ill and died at the early age of 32.
While Ramanujan was ill, the mathematician GH Hardy visited him in a nursing home. Hardy said that he had arrived in a taxi numbered 1729, a number that he found to be not very interesting. Ramanujan immediately disagreed, believing 1729 was quite interesting as it was the smallest number that was the sum of two cubes in two different ways. References to 1729 in Futurama are particularly timely and poignant this year, the centenary of the arrival of Ramanujan in Cambridge.
Singh is the author of Fermat’s Last Theorem — perhaps the first popular book on mathematics to become a bestseller — as well as The Code Book, and Big Bang. His latest book is entitled The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.
Singh has not shied away from controversy in tackling false pseudoscientific claims. He has received a variety of awards including an MBE and the Kelvin Medal in Physics, and is the first winner of the Leelavati Prize for public outreach in mathematics.