D'oh My!: Simon Singh and the Simpsons' secrets

by Simon de Carvalho '14

Simon Singh is a Cambridge-trained particle physics Ph.D. with a penchant for explaining complex mathematical and scientific concepts in ways fit for mass consumption. He is the bestselling author of Fermat’s Enigma, The Code Book, and The Big Bang, and he is visiting Harvard to discuss his newest book The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets 7 p.m. Nov. 4 at Science Center A. The book delves deep into the hidden mathematical underpinnings of The Simpsons, featuring analysis of particular episodes as well as interviews with the show’s award-winning creative team.

I spoke to Singh (whose email avatar, it is worth noting, is a picture of himself fashioned as a Simpsons character) in advance of his visit, which is free and open to the pubic.

What was your goal in writing this book?

My goal is always to get other people excited about the things that fascinate me, so I am simply trying to use The Simpsons as a springboard for exploring mathematics. It is a very bouncy springboard because The Simpsons is so rich in terms of mathematical reference, which is all because so many of its writers have backgrounds in mathematics.

What made you want to speak at Harvard? What do you think Harvard students can take away from your talk?

As so many of the writers of The Simpsons studied at Harvard, it seemed like a good idea to speak at the university. I hope students will pride take in the achievements of alumni. I hope that that the nerdier students will enjoy the mathematics in The Simpsons and perhaps even the non-nerds will be tempted to explore mathematics with Homer holding their hands.

A lot of math seems inaccessible to the masses; is this an unfair assumption, or do you think crossover potential exists in other areas of math not covered by your book?

Plenty of mathematics is too arcane for mere mortals—including me—but lots of interesting mathematical topics are within the grasp of the bright, curious reader. I should stress that people might assume that The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets will contain trivial mathematics, but it is a grown-up book for grown-up readers. I know teenagers will enjoy the book, too, but it is certainly not a children’s book. The book even contains one use of the F-word, and I don’t mean "factorization."

First of all, "pop math" is great—I would take that label with pride. Second, there is material in this book that goes beyond material covered in my other books. Third, we need a variety of math books in order to cater for the range of readers.

In your estimation, are there other shows that do what The Simpsons have done here with integrating mathematics into the show subtly?

There are lots of programmes that are full of science, such as The Big Bang Theory, and various science-fiction shows, such as Doctor Who or Star Trek, but the great thing about The Simpsons is it has no obvious connection with mathematics, and yet it is full of references to numbers.

Do you have a favorite episode of the Simpsons?

My favourite episode has to be Treehouse of Horror VI, because it contains the most mathematically intense five minutes of TV in any prime time TV show ever. It has references to Fermat's last theorem, the P v. NP problem, Euler's identity, ASCII, Cartesian co-ordinates and more.

[Caption: Simon Singh]