The Simpsons' secret mathematical universe

The Simpsons.jpg

(AP Photo/Fox)

First aired on As it Happens (09/10/13)

Hidden beneath the world of Springfield is a secret mathematical universe. Of course, this world isn't secret to math geeks -- it's as clear as the jokes on the screen. But for most people, all the math in The Simpsons goes unnoticed. In his new book,The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, author Simon Singh aims to show just how mathematical the hit show is.

"What I've tried to do in the book is identify every single example of mathematics in The Simpsons and then explain what that mathematics means and who put it there and why they put it there," Singh told As It Happens host Carol Off in a recent interview. According to Singh, this doesn't involve just a few episodes here and there. Throughout the show's 25 seasons, math has played an integral role. Sometimes the math is subtle and sometimes it's in the foreground.

For Simpsons fans, some episodes may already come to mind. For example, "Homer Cubed" is clearly an episode that is math-heavy. But Singh explained this isn't just Math 101. In the first five minutes of the episode, The Simpsons covers some pretty complex problems. "In those five minutes you've got a reference to something called Fermat's Last Theorem, you've got an unsolved problem called P versus NP, you've got ASCII characters -- which is a way of translating letters into binary code," said Singh.

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Other times the math is more subtle. In an episode called "Marge and Homer Turn a Couple Play," the Simpson family is at a baseball game. In the background the three numbers: 8191, 8208 and 8128 appear on the Jumbotron. To the lay viewer, these numbers are arbitrary, but Singh explained they are highly mathematical: 8191 is a special type of prime number called a Mersenne; 8208 is known as a narcissistic number "because you can rebuild the number from the elements within it"; and 8128 is known as a perfect number.

Clearly, The Simpsons writers take math very seriously. "There's a group of mathematicians on the writing team -- people with master's degrees, PhDs," said Singh. "They no longer are mathematicians but they still love mathematics and this is their way of expressing their love."

So what attracts mathematicians to comedy writing? Singh sees a link between the two. "Mathematicians love logic and they love playing with logic, they like twisting logic and sometimes they even like breaking logic. And when you break logic, that's when humour arises."

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