Simon says, Math is still a minority sport

Sunday, 9 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Saturday, 8 February 2014 - 10:39pm IST | Agency: DNA
Ruchi Kumar speaks to the man behind the book that identifies the mathematical genius of The Simpsons

Book: The Simspons And Their Mathematical Secrets
Author: Simon Singh
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 399
Price: Rs699

On the face of it, there’s little that connects the hit TV show The Simpsons and mathematics. But not if you believe Simon Singh and his latest books The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets.
“I think it is cooler to be a geek nowadays, but I still think that the teenager who loves maths and computers is often not part of the in-crowd,” says Singh, a popular science writer best known for his works on the Fermat’s last theorem.

Being a former CERN physicist, it didn’t take Singh very long to identify the mathematical geniuses of the popular animated TV show, The Simpsons. “I had been watching The Simpsons for about ten years before I noticed that The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace contains a reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem,” narrates Singh who has earlier written a book on Fermat’s Last Theorem, one the most confounding problems of any math geek’s life. “The reference is very clever, so it was clear that one of the writers had a strong interest in mathematics,” he explains.

On further investigation, Singh found that not only did a number of writers on the show have mathematical backgrounds, but also that they had all been hiding mathematics in various episodes of The Simpsons. One of television’s longest running series had become a scavenger field for its prolific line up of writers, much to the delight of its equally nerdy audiences.

“First, I watched lots of episodes of the show, even though I had seen most of them before. I often watched the shows with DVD commentaries switched on, as the writers sometimes highlight the maths in their commentary,” Singh says while explaining his highly entertaining operation of research for the book. Because, of course, no scientist should ever write a book without researching the subject thoroughly. “I also talked to others who had been looking at the maths in The Simpsons, such as two professors in America who have used examples from the show in their college lectures. Finally, I spent a week with the writers, which was invaluable. Not only did they highlight past references, but they also told me about references in upcoming episodes,” he adds.

Singh’s eventual book, The Simpsons... explores all the big and little moments of math humour and science punnery on the much loved TV show. In the book, Singh unveils episodes with hidden messages weaved into the storyline and narration by the writers. He profiles the writers themselves, who all have an illustrious academic history and association with some the top universities of the world. “Loving maths is still a minority sport,” says Singh. “Which is why it is so important that the writers of The Simpsons are proud to be identified as mathematicians. By exhibiting geek pride, they help teen geeks take pride in their own techy passions,” he adds.

 “The writers have been very supportive and generous with their time, and have said some very kind things about the book. Al Jean even said that he liked the book so much that he bought a copy for his mother,” shares Singh.  That obviously makes Singh very happy. “I always want the subjects of my books to like what I have written … unless I am writing about alternative therapists,” quips Singh, whose article on chiropractors earned him their ire and a law suit.

Although, usually a writer on all things science, Singh himself is a ‘pop-culture’ celebrity of the science community. He is also known for his YouTube show on an online maths project called Numberphile which has received millions of views. “I am increasingly surprised at how many people have come to know me through Youtube. So now people tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, are you the Numberphile guy?”

Singh’s books, although on niche subjects, have had a wider appeal. This could mark a turning tide with academic acceptance in popular culture. Singh points out, “Although there may be shows such as Doctor Who and Star Trek that mention mathematics, these references are few and far between. On the other hand, The Big Bang Theory is full of maths and physics, but that is an inherent part of the storyline, so it is not a surprise.”

“The wonderful thing about The Simpsons is that it is not a show about mathematics, yet it contains lots of equations,” he says.




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