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The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets | Simon Singh

Math and mirth

Simon Singh has a knack for picking up complicated scientific concepts and writing accessible, popular and good-natured books about them. Which is not, in itself, a unique ability. The shelves of bookstores groan under the weight of “popular" science books. This despite the common lamentation that scientific enquiry has moved far away from mass media and casual public cognizance.

It is true that modern science no longer occupies the space in public discourse it once did when scientists were also performance artists. Flamboyant geniuses such as Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi filled up lecture halls and theatres and stunned audiences. Alas, modern research is no longer so easily demonstrated. Still, the popular books keep coming, the most recent wave unleashed by the discovery of the Higgs boson, deep under the ground near Geneva.

What makes Singh somewhat special is his ability to pick topics that most people are already aware of, but in a vague, “I think I’ve read about it in school" way. So far his popular science books have explored Fermat’s Last Theorem, cryptography and the Big Bang—topics that seem deceptively commonplace, but remain largely elusive to the layperson.

His latest book, however, is a puzzling proposition: Who is The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets targeted at? Simpsons enthusiasts who’d like to explore mathematics? Or math enthusiasts who seek an inroad into the world of The Simpsons? Perhaps it is targeted at neither, but at The Simpsons enthusiast who also has a penchant for le monde mathematique.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets: Bloomsbury, 256 pages Rs399
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The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets: Bloomsbury, 256 pages Rs399

There is often one problem with books such as Singh’s that focus on the “amusing" or even “astounding" overlap of two seemingly disparate ideas; in this case, mathematics and an animated television show. By trying to make a case for the overlap, its interestingness, and therefore the concept of the book itself, the author is often left with little scope to really explore the two ideas as they are.

Often there is a tendency to reach for inelegant examples of such overlaps. Singh recounts one argument in an episode between Homer Simpson and his neighbour, Ned Flanders, that Flanders wins by saying: “’Fraid so infinity plus one!" Singh wonders if infinity plus one is actually a mathematically meaningful thing to say. Why did the writers include it in the script?

His analysis starts thus: “In their efforts to answer these questions, the mathematicians around the scripting table would doubtless have mentioned the name of Georg Cantor, who was born in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1845". He then goes on to provide a potted profile of Cantor and Cantor’s obsessions with the infinite. It is interesting. But the way Singh connects it to the Simpsons is somewhat disingenuous.

This is the pattern the book follows mostly, except for five “Examinations" in math puns and jokes that are sandwiched between chapters. A scene description is followed by a conversation with one of the writers about the math in the scene, which is followed by brief histories of the concept and the mathematician involved.

It is all, admittedly, very amusing and easy reading. But also somewhat pointless. Much like the point of inserting so much math into such a TV show. Did that make the viewers more math literate? Or was it merely a self-indulgence for the writers? The really interesting question Singh raises is how so many mathematically minded, and trained, individuals ended up becoming comedy writers. Is there a link between the numeracy and comedy? Between math and mirth?

That is perhaps the real mystery of The Simpsons. But this is not the book to answer that.

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