Book Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

The Simpson's And Their Mathemtical Secrets by Simon Singh - Header

They may be yellow, and the voices in the first series may be unrecognisable to the point of rendering it unwatchable, but The Simpsons has raised a generation. As series followed series, subtly and subconsciously, Bart and Homer, Lisa, Maggie and Marge came to tease snippets of learning into the minds of all those laughing as Moe, once again, calls out for “Amanda Hugginkiss”

I grew up on The Simpsons and, in our house, they were a Sunday night staple. They were the soap opera of my childhood. Far-fetched, comedic and entertaining. But at their heart, behind the characters, lies academia. So often you hear people answer a question, recount a fact they shouldn’t realistically know and cite The Simpsons as the point of reference. I know I certainly have. The quality in The Simpsons is in its writing, its style, you learn by osmosis. You laugh and cry, enjoy and smile at their hilarity and misfortune, whilst all the time, learning.

Homer Simpson and Fermats Last Theorem - The Simpson's And Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

I always knew that The Simpsons had a deeper meaning, but I didn’t realise just how specific it was until I received a copy of Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets as a Christmas present. You can’t miss the littering of knowledge that hides in each episode, but the focus so strongly onto maths had somehow gone unnoticed. I always enjoyed Maths at school. I wasn’t overly great at, or to be exact, I like numbers but not letters. Give me basic arithmetic and tangible statistics and I fall in love. Give me algebra, equations and calculus and I start to fall over.

I was a little worried, therefore, as I started to read Singh’s tale of how some seriously numeric minds had come to form the writing team behind a programme that shaped my childhood that I would be walking into a text of ‘x to the power y divided by the inverse square of the sum of its parts’. But thankfully I didn’t. The book is certainly academic, and a basic idea of the principles of Maths helps, but I could enjoyably follow it, even through its more complicated explanations, to realise just how much hidden detail I missed as a child.

The book is structured as two overlapping tales. The first is a history of the writers, their stories, academic qualifications and how the passions for differing areas of maths came together to allow so many different ideas to be used in the show. The second looks at the programme itself. It goes through various episodes detailing the hidden maths and explaining what they mean and why they were included.

Writing Team - The Simpson's And Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

Whilst I found the introductions to the writers and their stories interesting and the tales of the inner workings of how they actually write the episodes intriguing, it was the detailing of the episodes that drew me completely in. I don’t watch The Simpsons much, if at all, any more but that didn’t matter. The book spanned the time frame that I did, and so, I remembered the episodes instantly. It was like somebody taking the memories in my head and bringing them back to life with extra detail. There is the potential risk, that fiddling around with something of easily reminisced, could ultimately lead to their destruction, but thankfully, as stated, it simply added to it.

One of the most fascinating things to me with cartoons is their environment. Unlike ‘live action’ where the set, the environment, exist as the world is found, in a cartoon nothing just happens. Every piece of detail, whether it’s a piece of litter on the ground, a parked car or one of any number of incidental items used as background noise, has been put there for a reason. If a writer, animator, director or producer didn’t think about it, create it and have a reason for it, it won’t exist. Every object, drawing and pencil stroke in the The Simpsons has a purpose and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets is the reasoning behind those inclusions. It’s a book of secrets, about a programme I love.

I have to admit though that there were times when I started to get a little bit bored as Singh became slightly distracted by theory. Delving deeper in the actual history of the maths behind a number, formula or reference included in the show but thankfully they never overwhelm or descend the book into a heavy, slow or glutinous text. It’s not a fast “page turner” but rather the type of book that is conscious as it goes that it can’t rush it’s points without losing it’s reader. And it manages to keep it’s head above water as a result in a way that keeps you coming back for more.

Simon Singh - The Simpson's And Their Mathemtical Secrets by Simon Singh

I was a bit confused by The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh before I read it. I was given it as a gift and thought it’d be a very formal, factual based tale that would be hard to read, requiring bite sized absorption of numerical formula as you trudged through one man’s ideas on what other people really meant but it truly isn’t. It’s a light, interesting tale that will add to, rather than take away from; and if like me, you grew up watching The Simpsons, it’s truly eye opening as to just how clever Homer really is.

…And as if to prove my point, I will borrow this from Homer himself: 3987¹² + 4365¹² = 4472¹²!

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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