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Review: The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

Some of you will know that a long time ago I used to be a mathematician.  I used to do competitions and things when I was a teenager and spend my spare evenings working through puzzles.

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.

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15 Comments

  1. I think LD2 might be right – she’s probably creative if she is left-handed, as she is using a different part of her brain. I’m a leftie and like to think I lean towards the creative: I know one thing for sure – I’m rubbish at maths! 🙂

    • LD is always very pleased when she notices that someone else is left handed like her. She is definitely a creative one and eg with her drawing and I think you are creative too.

    • Jenny, here goes with yet another similarity – yep, you’ve guessed it, I’m left handed too! Out of my three children my middle boy is the only leftie and I’m the only one out of my parents and brother. It goes without saying too that I always hated maths although the strange thing is that I often ended up in jobs involving handling large amounts of money and I had no problem with that – accounting, post office (in the days when I had to balance my till weekly in my head and when we did everything, including dog and fishing licences!), legal secretary doing completions etc. It was the algebra kind of stuff I couldn’t handle too well 😉

      • You can obviously do maths – funnily enough arithmetic is one of my weakest parts of maths… especially in my head. It makes me go all cross eyed.

        On the other hand I like algebra and shapes.

  2. Here I am again on a mobile. Lyla doing ballet. My husband went to GA Tech University and majored in Math. He dropped out after three years because he felt he was in a separate world. During a Physics test! He finished his degree at another school in journalism. Coincidental!

    • Yes, some of those people doing maths just understand it on a totally different level from even those of us who are quite good at it. It’s like they have different brains.

      It’s interesting having an insight into both worlds though, maths and words.

  3. This book sounds fascinating Denise, who would have thought such a concept – maths and The Simpsons put together in one book but I can see how certain aspects of entertainment would draw people with this bent towards all thing maths-wise.
    I was not good at maths at school (maths was the only CSE I took, the rest being O Levels, but I did manage to get a grade 2 so maybe that wasn’t so disgraceful!!)
    As I read this I kept thinking of that old chestnut about Barbie dolls being anatomically impossible (if in the flesh). So perhaps that is a kind of a mathematical thought!
    You will have read my comment in reply to Jenny as above about being a leftie etc. Your LD and I have that in common too! I always admire mathematically inclined people like you so much as I’ve said before. I think you are brilliant, and I meant that 🙂
    PS My eldest son took trigonometry and then calculus (even though he really struggled with maths and was/is a reader and historian first and foremost) and then went on to study for a degree in computer science. After a few months he realised he had made a dreadful mistake and switched to his real love which was/is history. He completed his history degree at Sussex Uni!! He would have loved to have gone on to get his Masters but he couldn’t afford to take the time off. What is he doing 10 years later? He is a software developer…go figure 🙂

    • Funny how things work out. My sister switched to a English/History degree from maths but ended up an accountant.

      It’s great that he was able to follow his love and then go into a different career afterwards.

      They don’t teach you much useful on a computer science degree anyway. (My degree is maths and computer science.) It was the case when I graduated and I heard another employer complaining just the other day about how badly Universities prepare students for the real world of computing.

  4. Just to counter the leftie argument – I am right handed and I’ve always been pants at maths (CSE Grade 4 so trumping you there Sherri!) and English has always been my first love, did Journalism HND and Literature degree. My dad is right handed and he’s an artist and made a living out of it as a graphic designer. I think it would be interesting to know just how many lefties are actually mathematical and go into techie careers – the ratio would maybe be more telling than the vague notion that left-handers are also right-brain creative types…

  5. This is very interesting – I never would have made the connection between math and entertainment or The Simpsons either. I absolutely admire that you are good at math and that you come from a long line of mathematicians. I don’t have a brain for it. Even when someone explains a concept to me I have a hard time “getting it.” I was definitely a words person and majored in English Literature, and I am already not having the smoothest time of it helping my 9-year-old with any advanced math work. It’s a definite gift!

    • Maths such a fundamental thing in our curriculum that it can be hard if you don’t get it. I guess that’s why it attracts such horror and aversion in some people – eg lots of people are not good at sport (like me!) but because it’s easy to avoid most of the time I guess it’s not such a difficult experience.

      I bet your 9 year old is getting a load of exposure to great books though.

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