Books

# Mathematics in *The Simpsons*

11.4.13

*The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets,* [3]
by the British scientist and journalist Simon Singh, illuminates some
little-known facets of the popular, long-running TV show. It turns out that
several of the writers for *The Simpsons*
and its spinoff series, *Futurama*, are
genuine math and science nerds who have been able to exercise their
intellectual muscles while writing some of the funniest comedy on television. In
an appearance sponsored by the Office for the Arts, Singh came to the Harvard
campus on November 4 to give an evening talk on
his book at the Science Center. [4]

In his introductory “Chapter 0,”
Singh cites the academic degrees of “five of the nerdiest writers,” a list that
includes J. Stewart Burns ’92 (mathematics A.B., plus M.S. in math from
Berkeley); David S. Cohen ’88 (physics A.B., plus M.S. in computer science
from Berkeley); Al Jean ’81 (mathematics A.B.); Ken Keeler ’83, Ph.D. ’90 (both
degrees in applied mathematics); and Jeff Westbrook ’83 (physics A.B., plus Ph.D.
in computer science from Princeton). In addition, Michael Reiss ’81, who was
one of the original *Simpsons* writers
along with his friend and fellow Lampoon member Jean, had a flair for
mathematical puzzles as a boy and made the Connecticut state math team, though he opted for an English concentration at Harvard.

Singh, who earned a doctorate in
physics at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, was already a devoted *Simpsons* fan when, in 2004, he noticed a
school blackboard in one scene on the show that depicted some familiar-looking
equations. Specifically, in an episode written by Cohen, “The Wizard of
Evergreen Terrace,” he noticed a “very clever, near-miss solution” to Fermat’s
last theorem; this jumped out at Singh, one of whose books is *Fermat’s
Enigma.* Furthermore, a mathematical formula at the top of the blackboard
was a mathematical prediction of the Higgs boson—again, Singh, a particle
physicist who had worked at CERN, instantly recognized its provenance. He began
logging such occurrences on *The Simpsons *and
*Futurama*. (Writers have often migrated
back and forth between the two staffs.) “They are really sophisticated ideas,”
he explains. “But generally they appear in the background, as ‘freeze-frame’
gags. They don't let these things get in the way of the comedy.”

The vast majority of viewers, of course, are oblivious to these mathematical and scientific allusions—or will be, at
least, until they read Singh’s book. For most, the embedded references might be
“surprising, even shocking,” he says, “but the math is *real.* Yes, you could talk about the sociology or philosophy of *The Simpsons.* But you could apply that
kind of analysis to *Dallas* or *any* TV show—you can’t do a book on the
mathematics of *Modern Family*.”

One story illustrates the depth of
the scientific backdrop involved. Cohen had written a paper on “pancake numbers”
for a journal while he was a graduate student at Berkeley; it took a couple of
years to work its way into print, and by the time it was published, he had been writing for *The
Simpsons* for some time. When the research article finally appeared, Cohen
brought a stack of reprints to work. “Hey, I’ve got an article in *Discrete Applied Mathematics,*” he
announced, in Singh’s telling. Everyone was quite impressed, except Ken
Keeler, who said, “Oh, yeah, I had a paper in that journal a couple of months
ago.”