I recently finished reading Simon Singh‘s book titled ‘The Simpsons & their Mathematical Secrets’ and thought I’d write a review as it was a riveting literary account of the history of mathematics, as told through personal interviews with the writing team of both ‘The Simpsons’ & ‘Futurama’. The book does not demand extensive knowledge nor professional ability and grasp at Mathematics; instead it actually illuminates some of the more difficult problems, translating them into understandable language.
The book details how ‘The Simpsons’ has spent the past 3 decades sneakily including some nontrivial mathematics within its episodes; the reason seemingly being that the writers felt it was humourous and would engage the more mathematically inclined viewers. Singh talks about how some episodes contain what is known as ‘Freeze Frame’ gags, where the visual joke appears for less than 5 frames, forcing interested parties to pause the video playback to view it. However, other episodes place the maths in full view of the audience, in what appears to be random numbers or equations. However, upon further investigation it can be shown that the symbols and equations in episodes are far from meaningless combinations. One of my personal favorites is as Singh describes an episode of ‘Futurama’ where Bender, a talking, drunken android protagonist sees a random binary sequency written in blood. Paying homage to that scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining’, He then sees the reversed sequence through a mirror and is horrified!! Only those with some knowledge of binary number representation would appreciate this joke; read the book to find out more!
Singh introduces many famous figures in the world of mathematics throughout the book. He spans centuries of history, from Archimedes to Euler, from Gauss to Germain, and right up to Ramanujan and Erdős (he even throws in a reference to Bill Gates of Microsoft fame and his one and only published academic paper). Some chapters are dedicated to individual mathematicians, using their achievements as a narrative, and introducing some of the problems they commited their lives too. With each new mathematician, Singh demonstrates his ability for morphing mathematics from what can be (for most people I presume) a difficult thing to understand into intuitive, clear and sometimes beautiful explanations about one of the worlds truly fascinating subjects.
The book reignited an old passion in me for mathematics. Having strayed from the discipline for quite some time (I developed a paralyzing fear of maths during my undergraduate studies at University after having loved the subject and performed reasonably well during highschool), I found Singh to phrase the theorems in the book in such a way that they weren’t terrifying any longer. Instead, the mathematics is juxtaposed with music, paintings, and other forms of art. It is clear from the outset that Singh believed mathematics deserves a place in this exclusive domain and does in fact state this explicitly though a quote from Keith Devlin regarding the degree to which Euler’s equation reaches into the ‘very depths of existence’. Singh cleverly strays from deep technical derivations of some of the more complex topics within the main body of the book, opting to include them as appendices at the end. This avoids a context switch from consuming some fascinating history to remembering group theory, fractals, and prime numbers. This fits every reader from the casually piqued to the mathematics finatics obsessed with the underlying theory to satisfy their thirst for some proofs. After all, this book is really more of a historical passage through the catacombs of modern mathematics as opposed to a university freshman textbook on linear algebra. I found the book grossly engaging; I couldn’t put it down and gorged upon its satisfactory ~250 pages in a weekend.
I really enjoyed the book (as I imagine is quite obvious from my excited tone). Not only did I enjoy reading about the people behind the shows, my view of the Simpsons as a ‘dumb’ tv show has been radically altered. I have developed a new found appreciation for it (indeed, I’ll be looking for some Freeze Frame gags myself over the next few months in re-runs!), and also some of the issues I’ve had with mathematics since my undergraduate years have been lifted. I feel more confident and open to reading about mathematics again. In a way this book has truly illuminated my bleak view on the subject.
What more can I say other than; GO READ IT! :-)