If you want to make redshift and its importance in understanding the Big Bang memorable, then why not pass a potentially lethal electric current through a gherkin? Not all theatres will let you do this, and if you get away with it the first time, they may be more tremulous about allowing you to do it again ‒ but this is the way Simon Singh does it.
Singh combines a firm grasp of scientific understanding with a flair for showmanship, accentuated by his trademark pineapple-peaked hair, making him the easiest science populariser to recognise in silhouette. Having written books on Fermat’s last theorem, cryptography, cosmology and alternative medicine, as well as successfully fighting a case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association which led to a successful campaign for libel reform, he has now just written about The Simpsons. Or rather, he is using The Simpsons and the mathematics that is secreted in it, to bring sometimes difficult and intriguing mathematics to a mass audience.
Simon has been a regular visitor to stand-up clubs since he was a student, so I wondered whether he was drawn to writing about The Simpsons primarily for the humour or for the mathematics. But, much as he loves comedy, it is always the maths that comes first.
From Harvard to Springfield
“The maths in The Simpsons generally isn’t funny maths,” Simon says. “It’s just maths put in there for the sake of the writer. So that’s all I was interested in. When I went over to meet the writers, I was interested in their mathematical more than their comedy backgrounds.”
Simon then discovered that The Simpsons is written by some heavyweight mathematicians.
“They’re not people who are fond of maths, they’re people who have degrees in maths. Al Jean was 16 when he went to Harvard to do a degree in mathematics, so he’s not just a mathematician, he’s a superstar teenage [one]. David X Cohen did a degree in physics but was certainly on the more mathematical end, and went on to write research papers in mathematics later. J Stewart Burns was doing a PhD in pure mathematics at Berkeley. These are some of the top universities for mathematics in the world. He left his PhD to become a comedy writer.”
In a world where the mathematician stereotype is someone socially inept, lost in a landscape of numbers and formulae, able to calculate an effective trajectory between Earth and Mars but unable to open a carton of juice, the vision of a bunch of them sitting around laughing and writing the most popular cartoon on the planet is a welcome antidote.
“Some people love mathematics the way that others love music or art. That’s their passion,” Simon points out.
If at first you’re not funny
Though we argued about it, and found ourselves without hard facts to fall back on, Simon believes that comedy has a high number of qualified mathematicians, considering how few study it to PhD level.
“The Simpsons has a disproportionately high number of mathematicians behind it. What is the reason for it? Is there a difference in the way mathematicians write comedy compared to the others? One of them ‒ I think it was Jeff Westbrook ‒ said that they tend to work as a group in the same way that they’d sit at grad school and talk about maths problems and try and solve them together.
‘They would do the same thing with jokes. Then they would refine them and somebody else would tweak it and so on, until you got a really great joke. Whereas the non-mathematicians would just come up with a joke out of the blue, almost perfectly formed.”
Simon then describes this joke-writing method in terms of mathematical cipher systems with the aid of some serviettes and a biro. With his usual humility, he ends with, “This may be a very poor analogy” ‒ but it isn’t.
The proof in the punchline
For a man who loves comedy and maths, combining the two in a work project must have been joyous. I wondered when he first noticed the mathematics hidden in The Simpsons.
“I saw an episode called The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace. Homer wants to be an inventor, he wants to follow in the footsteps of Edison. He’s in his basement trying to invent and he’s scribbling on a blackboard, and the blackboard’s full of these weird equations that just look like gobbledygook ‒ and one of them is Fermat’s last theorem.”
The writers’ backgrounds led to a joy in bending and stretching logic, and animation is the perfect medium to tackle that.
“As mathematicians, you want control,” Simon tells me. “Every line you write down is perfect, every subsequent line is a logical follow on from that, every conclusion that you reach is a perfect conclusion. It’s the same with animation: every line you write is read out, every cell you draw is reproduced.”
Mathematicians, as well as being control freaks, always have strong intuitions which make it possible to identify good problems and then help to solve them. Or, as Simon puts it, “If a problem is trivial, there’s no point in doing it. If it’s impossible, there’s no point in doing it. But is it in that interesting area between trivial and impossible? That same intuition guides the writers to assess if a particular scenario is potentially rich in humour, and where exactly the jokes might lie.”
The joy of puzzles and maths
Simon believes jokes can be similar to puzzles, inasmuch as a solution can be akin to a gag’s punchline. Further napkins are found and, worryingly, Simon challenges me with a puzzle. I attempt the excuse of a cold and runny nose, but he’ll have none of it and the Xs and Ys are scribbled in front of me. Thankfully, the solution is simple enough to be drawn out of me and, in that moment, I see a glimmer of the joy of puzzles and maths. I see something worth pursuing. That is what so much of Simon’s work does; it draws you in and makes you want to go further, risk understanding more.
In a culture where it is quite socially acceptable to know the names of few scientists and even fewer, if any, mathematicians, Simon has worked hard to make science and innovators part of the conversation. You can see the joy as he stands on stage, and using references from Futurama, is able to tell the triumphant and tragic tale of the Indian mathematician Ramanujan. Next time you are watching an animation, watch out for the number 1729. If you see it, you are probably watching the work of someone with a PhD in mathematics.
Simon Singh’s things
In his latest book, the pineapple-haired science populariser mines the fictional town of Springfield for mathematically-themed comedy and brainteasers. Here are a few of our favourites:
Q: What did the number 0 say to the number 8?
A: Nice belt!
Q: What are the 10 kinds of people in the world?
A: Those who understand binary, and those who don’t.
Q: What’s big, grey, and proves the uncountability of the decimal numbers?
A: Cantor’s diagonal elephant.
Q. Why is it that the more accuracy you demand from an interpolation function, the more expensive it becomes to compute?
A: That’s the law of spline demand.
Follow Simon Singh @SLSingh; Robin Ince @robinince. The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh (Bloomsbury; £17.09) is out now. Photography: Alex Harvey Brown