Author Interviews
7:07 am
Sat October 26, 2013

Divide By D'oh! The 'Mathematical Secrets' Of The Simpsons

Originally published on Sat October 26, 2013 10:19 am

Most people watch The Simpsons to laugh. And, perhaps, feel a little superior to the animated family who are Springfield's best known, if often most dysfunctional citizens.

But Simon Singh, the Cambridge-trained physicist and best-selling author, watches the show not just for laughs, but also for the ... math? In his new book, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, he argues that the writers and producers have woven a lot of math into The Simpsons — and into a highly honored show from the same team, Futurama.

Singh is no stranger to math; his first book was about French mathematician Pierre de Fermat's famous unsolved theorem. And the idea of hidden mathematical knowledge encoded in the adventures of Homer and Bart seems far-fetched, but Singh assures NPR's Scott Simon it's true. "I was watching The Simpsons one day, an episode called 'The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,' and there on a blackboard behind Homer was an equation that directly relates to Fermat's last theorem. And I don't miss things like that."


Interview Highlights

On "Evergreen Terrace" writer David X. Cohen

[He] has written mathematical papers, you know, serious research papers. And then I found out that he's not the only mathematician — there are other writers that have Ph.D.s in maths, one was a Yale professor. And they've all been doing it, they've all been smuggling math into the scenes of The Simpsons.

On why so many mathematicians ended up on The Simpsons

The one that they all seemed to agree on was the fact that mathematicians love logic, but they also love twisting logic, they love bending logic, they love playing with it. And they love occasionally breaking it. And when you break logic, that's where humor appears.

On the importance of the VCR

A lot of [the jokes] are freeze-frame gags, which means you literally have to pause the show to get the reference. You have to remember that when The Simpsons started, around 1989-1990, roughly half of the homes in America had a VCR, so for the first time people could watch episodes again and again, and they could get these freeze-frame gags. The writers said it allowed them to increase the comedic density, because they could get more in. And my suggestion is that it also allows them to increase the nerdic density, because you can get more obscure references in at the same time.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Most people watch "The Simpsons" to laugh, and maybe feel at little superior to the animated family who are Springfield's best know, if often dysfunctional citizens. But Simon Singh, the trained Cambridge physicist and best-selling author, watches to laugh - but also for the math. He says "The Simpsons" writers and producers have woven a lot of math into the program and to also into a highly honored show they did, called "Futurama." Simon Singh's new book is "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets." And Mr. Singh, author of previous best-sellers including "Fermat's Enigma" and "The Code Book," joins us from our studios in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON SINGH: Oh, my pleasure.

SIMON: You sure about this?

SINGH: Absolutely, yeah. As you mentioned, my first book was "Fermat's Enigma," and that's all about a notorious problem known as Fermat's Last Theorem. And I was watching "The Simpsons" one day, an excerpt called "The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace." And there on a blackboard behind Homer was an equation that directly relates to Fermat's Last Theorem. And, you know, I don't miss things like that because...

SIMON: No, no. What the rest of us just see as a bunch of scrawls...

SINGH: Yeah. I wrote the book, so I can't miss that. So, I found out who the writer and it's a chap called David X. Cohen. And David X. Cohen has written mathematical papers, you know, serious research papers. And then I found out that he's not the only mathematician. There are other writers who have Ph.D.s. in math. One was a Yale professor. And they've all been doing it. They've all been smuggling math into the seams of "The Simpsons."

SIMON: Mike Reis, Al Jean - you met them.

SINGH: Yeah. So, Scott, about 10 years ago, I first started contacting the writers. It wasn't until last year in fact I actually went over and I spent a week in their offices. And I interviewed the mathematical writers and got their take on, you know, why do they do this? But also I think the other interesting thing I wanted to know was what their theory was as to why mathematicians had ended up on what is now the world's most successful sitcom? The one they all seem to agree on was the fact that mathematicians love logic but they also love twisting logic, they love bending logic, they love playing with it and they love occasionally breaking it. And when you break logic, that's where humor appears.

SIMON: I want to ask you about an episode in which math, science figures into the plot even if you don't realize it at first. And this is "Springfield or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling," where Homer gets endowed with Henry Kissinger's brain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (as Homer) The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.

HANK AZARIA: (as Man in Stall) That's a right triangle, you idiot.

CASTELLANETA: (as Homer) D'oh.

SIMON: Of course, that comes about because - I don't know how to explain this - Henry Kissinger uses the loo and his thick glasses fall into the loo. And Homer puts them on and he's endowed with this perception.

SINGH: Well, the thing about it is it sounds like Pythagorean's Theorem. So, he gets it all wrong. It sounds right but it's wrong. And he's actually quoting the scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz," because when the scarecrow gets his diploma, he reels off exactly the same equation. It sounds impressive but it's actually all wrong.

SIMON: And you say in the book your judgment is it's calculatedly wrong because the way Ray Bolger must have had to rehearse to make that recitation.

SINGH: Yes. If he got one word wrong then you would think it's just a slip-up. But the fact that he got so many different elements wrong makes me think that the writers did it deliberately to give a sense of the fact that, OK, the scarecrow had a diploma so he didn't become suddenly overnight smarter but he had the confidence to think he was going to be smarter. So, that was the big change in him.

But what was interesting about that episode was if you look at the writing credits, I think the writers behind it are Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. And I met Josh. I said, look, Josh, you've got mathematics in this episode. Why did you put it in? You're not a mathematician. That's not your background. And he went back to his garage and he picked up the original draft script that he'd written. And in his draft script, there wasn't any mention of mathematics. I think he had some other example to demonstrate the fact that Homer thought he was suddenly smart because he had these spectacles on. But when the draft script is handed back to the rest of the writing team, often that's when the mathematicians will put in a little mathematical nod. So, as one of the other writers who at that point suddenly turned a non-mathematical line into a mathematical one.

SIMON: Do you sense, when you were speaking to the company of writers, that they feel anything, despite their success, resembling pressure to, you know, just do the jokes?

SINGH: Ooh, gosh. No, I don't think so. I think when Matt Groening kind of kick-started the whole project, he very much encouraged people to celebrate their own particular interests. So, I don't think there's any pressure to just do the jokes. A lot of them are freeze-frame gags, which means you literally have to pause the show to get the reference. And you have to remember when "The Simpsons" started around 1989, 1990, roughly half of the homes in America had a VCR. So, for the first time, people could watch episodes again and again, and they could get these freeze-frame gags. And the writers said it allowed them to increase the comedic density 'cause they could get more in. And my suggestion is it also allows them to increase the nerdic density because you can get more obscure references at the same time.

SIMON: Simon Singh. His new book, "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets." Pleasure to talk to you. Thanks very much.

SINGH: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SIMPSONS: THEME")

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.