Pi-Man – Simon Singh talks The Simpsons and Mathematics
Mmmm. Doughnut theory…
When Exposed was little all it wanted to do was avoid maths and watch The Simpsons, so reading Simon Singh’s book The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, it's a shock to discover that a secret cabal of writers on the Worlds Greatest Show were the opposite. But that's just one of the revelations that the Simon Singh (off brilliant Radio 4 pop science show Infinite Monkey Cage amongst other things) draws out in his animated pop science book. Filled with more tasty secrets than Dan Brown's Mystery Bakery, we caught up with Simon just as he was preparing to come up to Sheffield for his talk at Flash! This Sunday as part of the Off The Shelf festival…
Exposed: Ay carumba! Congrats on the book, it’s brill. And we only had to take one break as a result of our brains struggling with the numbers!
Simon Singh: Cheers! You work on these things for years and it’s always great when you get feedback!
Reading the book is like a rollercoaster version of maths – it’s this sweeping ride through The Simpsons’ obsession with numbers and theorems and stories and the like and absolutely mindblowing at points. It is like a Dan Brown book. In a good way. What was it like to write?
I think the problem I had was when I came to write the book I initially wanted to have six themes and six chapters – each based around types of mathematics or certain characters. But I found I was starting to crowbar and force things in to fit. When I switched to having seventeen chapters the book just came alive. So if I want to talk about Homer Simpsons' modified Pythagorean Theorem I can just talk about it! Once I got hold of that it was actually pretty easy to write.
When did you first watch The Simpsons?
Well I missed the first two series cos I was out of the country and initially I thought it was for children but of course The Simpsons is for everybody.
I think the first mathematics reference that really hit me was the reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem in Treehouse of Horror VI. When I saw that I was like ‘That’s really odd!’ I’ve written a whole book on Fermat’s Last Theorem (“V cool mystery which involves a part time mathematician called Fermat leaving behind a book full of notes on Theorems – statements of mathematical fact – all but one of which were discovered to be true. So his ‘last theorem’ is the last remaining one that everyone is trying to prove” – Flash! Maths Ed) and I know that equation, but I guess most people don’t. And thought nothing more about it. But then I saw Rubber Sheet Geometry crop up in the episode, ‘The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace’ (in which Homer becomes a great-ish inventor) and that’s when I became really curious! And from there I discovered who David Z Cohen was and realised there were lots of mathematicians on The Simpsons’ writing team and lots of mathematical references I’d never even noticed before…
Mentioning ‘Treehouse of Horror’ and Fermat’s Last Theorem in the same sentence is an immediately amusing juxtaposition. We giggled. Is striking a balance between humour and maths tricky?
Well I’ve written quite serious books in the past. But more recently I’ve been doing more light hearted things – like Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox and Robin Ince. So on that I got to work with comedians such as Dara O’Briain and Tim Minchin and the like. Going out on stage with them I thought my job was to be interesting: if I’m funny that’s a bonus. But I think the time I spent touring with them made me more open to the idea of being a little more light-hearted.
Our favourite examples of puzzles in the book are things like Homer’s answer to Fermat’s last theorem because they provide the audience with something to do – you can actually go away and test his theory so you feel like you’re part of the story. And it’s double fun because the writers have designed their solution based on second-guessing how the audience will test it…
Yeah! I love being able to go away and play with the things the show does. Homer’s answer is an example of a mathematical ‘near miss’. They’re just experiments with mathematics, which is the sort of thing I do as well. There may be a hundred million people who watch The Simpsons around the world. Out of that hundred million there may be a hundred who get this kind of reference.
But now you can be one of them! We love how your description of discovering these clues make it sound like a kind of detective story. You’re going through the show frame by frame at some points to spot book titles or things on blackboards in the background…
Well although it’s a book about The Simpsons you want to bring your own words and ideas to bear too. There’s a lot of The Simpsons in there but I think there’s stuff in the book that nobody will have ever thought of before. You can go too far though. I went to the writers asking about the number of The Simpsons house, which is 742 Evergreen Terrace. It’s not a square number, it’s not a prime number, it’s not a narcissistic number. What is it? What is 742?!? “It’s the number of their house,” Came the reply. So you can become a bit too obsessive!
Simon Singh talks about The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets at The Foundry on Sunday 20th October 2013 as part of the Off The Shelf festival. Tickets here.
Read more about FLASH! Series of events at Off The Shelf here.
Interview by Rob Barker. Ay carumba!