We’re all quite mathematical in our family. My dad is a civil engineer, both my sister and I were teenage mathematicians, my husband had a PhD in physics, my step-son has a degree in computer science, and Lovely Daughter #1 is very good at maths.
Lovely Daughter #2 can do maths, but isn’t really into it. She is more into words, so is good at English, but is especially into History. She has an explanation for this: it’s because she’s left-handed and the rest of us are right handed. She is also (don’t know if the left handed factor is behind this) a lot more socially able to cope with situations and people than I was at her age.
The Lovely Daughters and I went for lunch at the Toby Carvery on Sunday afternoon. This was in celebration of Lovely Daughter #2 being elected School Council rep for her year. For this she had to put a little presentation together for all the children in her year to look at, something I would never have been able to do at her age. It’s funny watching my children do different things from me. They have different personalities, and also a different upbringing, from each other and from me. Sometimes I wonder how I would have turned out if I had not had such a socially isolated upbringing. Would I have found different things to do with my time, other than lots of maths? But at the time, it was an easy option. My life felt a bit empty and it was easier to lose myself in numbers and diagrams than struggle with social relationships and get nowhere.
The natural thing when the time came was for me to apply to University to read was maths, because I was good at it, although it wasn’t perhaps the thing that I was most interested in. I didn’t think this would matter. However, once I got to Uni, it became quickly apparent that I was only ever destined to be a moderately good mathematician. I was never going to be one of the geniuses who understood it straightaway, and the lack of fundamental interest in the subject made it difficult for me to get down to work.
It was pretty difficult coming to terms with losing this label of being “the one who was good at maths”, but this was what I had to do, along with finishing the degree, which I did in a rather middle of the road way.
So a lot has happened between me being that girl staying in sizing up pictures of squares, and picking up The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets.
It starts with the backgrounds of some of the writers, who are of the mathematical genius type. There are some seriously, seriously clever people writing for The Simpsons, with all sorts of high level qualifications.
Then we move onto some lovely and very attractive maths, which remind me of some of the things I used to enjoy. Even if you don’t enjoy the maths, there are plenty of amusing recollections, insights on the lives of the writers and interesting anecdotes, like that about the man who tried to pass a law on the value of pi so that he could rake in royalties on it.
My favourite part is the the description of the episode where Homer accidentally falls into 3-D space. This has loads of maths and non maths jokes in it, including “What’s going on here? Why am I so bulgy? My stomach sticks way out in front.” It’s quite conceptual too – you don’t have to totally understand the maths of different dimensions (I certainly don’t!) to get a feel for it.
It’s also satisfying and by no means incongruous to see wider STEM questions addressed, such as why so many mathematicians would be drawn to writing for the Simpsons – why comedy and why that particular show? More seriously, the book addresses, although it does not claim to answer, the question of the under representation of women in the area of maths and science.
The one thing I wondered about was how the author would sustain such a long book when mathematics is essentially simple and elegant. And the answer is that the second half of the book on Futurama. This was mildly interesting, but I didn’t read it all – it didn’t resonate in the same way The Simpsons had through my life, exploding as it did anarchic and yellow into my schooldays, following me through Friday evenings and the beginning of the weekend with my friends at Uni, and then into entertaining my own children when they were young.
The book ends with the thoughts of these writers on leaving the world of maths for the world of words and entertainment. When I was “in maths”, I felt aware that I was taking part in something different, a bit “minority”, a bit misunderstood. There is a world that everyone understands, and then there’s the world of maths. And leaving that world is sad. There’s a feeling that you’ve kind of let the side down. And that sadness was apparent among the writers too, when they spoke of their previous lives.
It was difficult being at university and doing something I didn’t enjoy. But reading this and reliving some of it reminded that I don’t regret having made that decision, and that the experience left me with something special after all.