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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Maths Behind the Simpsons' Women

"When Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman in history to win a Fields Medal last month, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize, her feat was hailed as a milestone in efforts to undermine the corrosive stereotype that maths is not for girls. But, just as inspiring as the real life triumph of Mirzakhani, are the dogged efforts of fictional Lisa Simpson, who has been a cartoon role model for rational thinking for more than a quarter of a century." continues Newsweek.

Photo: Newsweek

In an event at the Science Museum in London on 26th September, Simon Singh, author of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, will explain how the Fox animated sitcom is the most mathematically-sophisticated show in the history of prime time broadcasting, and that Lisa is a critical ingredient. “When I talk to school kids about the mathematics hidden in The Simpsons, I always stress Lisa’s character, because she is such a great role model for girls who might be budding geeks or nascent nerds,” he says.

Joining Singh in the museum will be two renowned Simpsons writers: David X Cohen, who has a degree in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley (and is also the creative force behind Futurama); and Al Jean, who worked on the first series and is now executive producer, and who went to Harvard University to study mathematics at the age of 16.

Among the many other Simpsons writers, Ken Keeler has a doctorate in applied mathematics and J. Stewart Burns a bachelor's degree in mathematics, both from Harvard University; Jeff Westbrook a PhD in computer science from Princeton who held a faculty position in Yale.
No wonder the The Simpsons show has been peppered with mathematical references since the first proper episode of the series in 1989 (which included a joke about calculus). These arcane flourishes include appearances by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal and the Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, various jokes about pi, and much more. In “The PTA Disbands”, Lisa gets so bored by a lack of schooling she builds a perpetual motion machine, prompting Homer to declare: “Lisa, in this house we OBEY the laws of thermodynamics.” “We love to infuse The Simpsons with as much subliminal knowledge as possible,” says Jean. “Maths, art and even recipes for lentil soup, which we put into Paul McCartney’s performance of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’.” 

Among the cast, Lisa stands out as a beacon of rational thinking. The perpetual eight-year-old took her Little League baseball team to the championship with the help of statistics, delivered a paper at the 12th Annual Big Science Thing (“Airborne Pheromones and Aggression in Bullies”) and used maths to improve brother Bart’s golf. When benches fall on her in one episode, Principal Skinner cries out: “She’s been crushed . . . so have the hopes of our mathletics team!”

Source: Newsweek