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Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Simpsons: One big numbers game

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Why is The Simpsons more fun if you’re familiar with Fermat’s Last Theorem?
Because it’s written by maths geniuses, says Tom Chivers

‘Comedy,” says Al Jean, “is very mathematical. Especially animation, with its precision and control.” I bow to his expertise on both subjects – he’s a graduate in mathematics from Harvard University but, more famously, he’s also one of the original writers of the longest-running and most successful animation of all time, The Simpsons, which has its 25th anniversary in December.


You can see the analogy – although he doesn’t call it an analogy; he uses the mathematical term isomorphism. Good comedy, like a mathematical problem, has a complicated set-up and then a satisfying, unexpected reveal: “Coming up with a good joke is often like doing a proof,” says Jean.

That, at least, is the explanation Jean gives for the fact that the writing staff of The Simpsons, and of its sister show Futurama, is crammed with maths geniuses, and for the related fact that both shows are equally crammed with highbrow mathematical concepts; one contains an apparent disproof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, while the other contains the proof of an original theorem, the only one ever published in a cartoon rather than an academic journal. “We’re subconsciously oozing our nerdiness into the script,” Jean says.

David X Cohen, one of Jean’s former colleagues on The Simpsons, another Harvard graduate and now the head writer on Futurama, explains further. “We have a healthy team of nerds,” he says. “I have a master’s in theoretical computer science, and my undergraduate is in physics. Those credentials place me somewhere in the middle in the Futurama writing staff.” There are three PhDs, one in chemistry, one in computer science, and one in applied maths; Cohen describes himself as “pretty mediocre” by comparison. 

The book is out now
We’re talking about the mathematical secrets of The Simpsons because, this year, a book was published called The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, and Cohen and Jean are coming to London’s Science Museum to talk about it. The book is written by Simon Singh, one of Britain’s most respected science writers and the holder of a PhD in particle physics. 

“Usually these books are the writer inserting their own ideas into the show,” says Cohen. “This is someone digging up ideas that we’ve stuck in the show.” Jean gives an example: one 2006 episode features a baseball game. At one point, the crowd is asked to guess the attendance, and three numbers come up: 8,128, 8,208 and 8,191. For most viewers they’re three arbitrary numbers but, for maths nerds, they’re not. The first, 8,128, is a so-called “perfect number”: the numbers that it divides into also add up to it. Then, 8,208 is a “narcissistic number”: it has four digits and, if you multiply each one by itself four times, the results add up to 8,208. And 8,191 is a “Mersenne prime”, named after a 17th-century French mathematician. A prime number is one that can be divided only by itself and one; for many prime numbers, if you double them and add one, it makes a new prime number, a Mersenne. “You wouldn’t know just looking at the sign,” says Jean. “That’s my favourite thing; it encourages digging, and repeat viewing.” 
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Related link 
New Book: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh/

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