In the Simpsons episode "Marge and Homer Turn a Couple Play", a big screen in Springfield's baseball stadium asks the crowd to guess the capacity. It gives the options: (a) 8,191, (b) 8,128 and (c) 8,208. Irish Times readers will, of course, recognise that (a) is a "prime number", (b) is a "perfect number" and (c) is a "narcissistic number".
In another episode Apu announces he can "recite pi to 40,000 places. The last digit is 1." Well, the 40,000th decimal place of pi actually is the digit 1. But you knew that.
In Futurama, another cartoon created by Matt Groening, Bender the robot sees the binary number 0101100101 written in blood. He is unconcerned until he sees it reflected in a mirror as 1010011010. He is suddenly terrified. I won't patronise you by explaining the joke. I'm sure you've figured it out for yourself*.
The Simpsons and Futurama are packed with surprisingly complex, throwaway gags about maths. These jokes, says Simon Singh, the Mohawk-haired, Harry Potter-bespectacled author of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, are often only noticed by "about three people". But the mathematically inclined Simpsons creators don't care. When writer Eric Kaplan was told a maths gag was too obscure for most viewers, he replied "f*** 'em".
Singh, a science writer with a PhD in physics, first noticed the maths of The Simpsons while watching "The Wizard of Ever Green Terrace", an episode in which Homer wrote on a blackboard: 3,987^12 + 4,365^12 = 4,472^12, thus apparently solving Fermat's last theorem. Singh had written a bestselling book on that subject. So he wrote to The Simpsons and Futurama writer David X Cohen, spent time with the writing staff (many of whom also hold maths and physics PhDs) and explored the show's many maths jokes.
A lightning bolt
Singh has long strived to encourage scientific learning. He's had a lot of fun doing so. He worked for the BBC science programme Tomorrow's World. He once took songwriter Katie Melua to task for implying that the universe was 12 billion years old rather than 13.7 billion in her song Nine Million Bicycles (she good-naturedly recorded a new version for him). He also toured a show called Theatre of Science. One set-piece involved him standing in a cage while Tesla coils on either side generated a million volt bolts of lightning.
“Every night the audience would vote on who would go into the cage, me or my colleague [Richard Wiseman],” he says. “It was genuinely dangerous and unpleasant. Lightning ionises the nitrogen in the air, which then forms nitric acid, and you’re inhaling nitric acid fumes as really loud noises are hitting your ears. My future mother-in-law was there, and she voted for me to go into the lightning cage. I’ve never forgiven her for that.”
Singh wants people to be more scientifically conscious, but understands why they are resistant. "Physics and maths are hard!" he says. "That's why I became a journalist. I loved my PhD and loved being at Cern and doing research, but when I was finishing I could see people who were smarter than me and quicker than me. They were going to be the great scientists and I was going to struggle. So I thought: what else can I do to make the most of my love and interest and ability? And I moved to the BBC and applied for jobs on Tomorrow's World."
He believes we need to improve how these subjects are taught in schools. "There are more scientists graduating in India every year than exist in the whole of the EU," he says. "And politicians just inevitably seem to get it wrong. In England there were fewer people doing physics and they said: what we'll do is take the maths out of physics A level. But then it's no longer really physics, and kids who do well go to university, and then realise they don't have the maths to do a degree."
After he started researching The Simpsons he got sidetracked writing a book debunking the myths of alternative medicine, Trick or Treatment?
"I had done the whizz-bang science for Tomorrow's World, but I realised that as important as it was to celebrate good science, it was just as important to attack bad science. My co-author Edzard [Ernst] said 'it'll get nasty'. And it did."
A Guardian article he wrote, "Beware the Spinal Tap", led to a long libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh eventually won that legal battle (the article is available again on the Guardian website). The experience politicised him. He got involved in a campaign to change the libel laws and toured with other campaigners, such as science-savvy comedian Dara O Briain.
“I got a call from a 13-year-old blogger who was highlighting cancer quackery, and he’d been threatened with libel. He was terrified because it wasn’t his house that was at a stake, it was his parents’. I have a thick skin. I don’t have a job, so no one can fire me. I’ve written successful books. I don’t need to worry about lots of things. I’m in a very comfortable position so if I don’t speak out, who can?”
An unusual career path
He likes the unpredictable trajectory of his career. "My PhD in physics helped me get a job at the BBC. Learning to make three-minute films on Tomorrow's World helped me to become a writer and to explain things clearly. Working as a writer got me interested in education and got me sued for libel, which got me interested in politics. Everything feeds into everything else. Maybe going on tour with Robin Ince and Dara O Briain and Chris Addison made me more likely to write a book with a lighter touch."
That book is an entertaining mix of mathematical explanations, anecdotes from the lives of mathematicians and stories about writers of The Simpsons. He's very happy to see maths being celebrated in something so culturally significant. "They're talking to the kid who's 13 years old, maybe a maths nerd who doesn't fit in with the cool kids and is maybe less in love with mathematics than they should be," he says. "When they see a maths reference on The Simpsons and know what it is and know the writers know what it is, I think it makes them feel good about who they are and what they do."
Now that this project is completed, he thinks he might move on to something a bit more serious, possibly a book about climate change. He laments newspapers giving time to climate change deniers out of a misguided notion of balance. He is planning to bring “parliamentarians suspicious of the scientific consensus” together with scientists. “I’m curious to see if their positions will shift.”
He's also hoping to turn his Simpsons research into an educational resource. There is so much real maths in the Simpsons, he says, he couldn't believe the writers would use a number without significance. "The number of the house in which the Simpsons live is 742, and for ages I couldn't figure out what it meant," he says. "I said to the writers, 'You have to tell me what it is. It's not a square number or a narcissistic number or a prime number or the sum of two cubes. It's not an Armstrong number. What is it?'" He laughs. "They said 'Simon, it's just a number.'"
*1010011010 translates as 666