23 December 2013

Lessons from the Simpsons

The popular cartoon series is littered with geeky gags, a new book reveals.

The Simpsons and their mathematical secrets
Simon Singh, Bloomsbury (2013), RRP $32.99

The only problem parents might have with this book is it opens the way for kids to reply, when homework beckons, that they are watching The Simpsons because it’s “educational”.

Simon Singh started out as a particle physicist but turned towards a career popularising science in film and his many books. These cover a broad range of topics ranging from Fermat’s last theorem to a critique of alternative medicine.

In this book he unpacks the myriad throwaway maths gags that litter the hit animation series The Simpsons and Futurama. Who knew? However, once  it is pointed out, the surprising number of nerdish jokes become apparent. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is about the advanced academic qualifications of the scriptwriters for these hugely popular animated series. At least five of the team have advanced degrees in mathematics, physics or computer science.

What’s the probability of that? You could ask Marge Simpson. In one episode she drags the family to the museum where there is a lecture on Blaise Pascal, the father of probability theory. The lecture features a Galton Board. This device consists of marbles rolling down a board and bouncing off a series of pins.

The marbles at the base of the slope form a humped distribution pattern, demonstrating Pascal’s theory. Singh tells us that most of one script conference was taken up in argument by the mathematician writers over which probability equation to use for the marble distribution.

“Everyone else was kind of looking bored and rolling their eyes,” writer Jeff Westbrook tells Singh. But there’s nothing boring about Singh’s delight in the hidden geekdom of these popular TV shows. His explanations of the complex concepts are fascinating, even (perhaps especially) if mathematics is not your strong suit.

Tell your kids to get away from the television and read it!


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