The show that teaches maths

Journalist and science writer Simon Singh is on a mission to dispel the myth that maths is a dry and dusty subject.

And he has disovered he has some allies in the world of comedy, most notably the creators of The Simpsons, many of whose writers have degrees and Phds in mathematics.

After noticing some episodes contained references to maths, he went to California to investigate and has written a book, The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets.

“They show they still have a passion for the subject by smuggling in references to maths,” says Singh. “Sometimes it’s part of the plot like where Marge is in court for shoplifting and Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu is tested on his ability to remember. There are lots of ways this could have been done but in this case they used the measurement of the digits of Pi. He testifies that he can recite pi to 40,000 decimal places so here it’s part of the plot and it becomes part of the humour.”

On other occasions the jokes are almost subliminal, freeze frame gags which can only be seen if the viewer presses the pause button. “These work better than anything. You can play around with names of shops and lettering on billboards which you wouldn’t see in real time,” says Singh who admits that it is likely to interest only a niche group.

“On the whole, very few viewers will have realised that they have been drip fed mathematics along the way.

For example, two episodes contain references to Fermat’s Last Theorem, the most notorious problem in the history of mathematics (and the subject of a previous book by Simon Singh).”

In the new book Singh uses specific episodes as jumping off points to bring to life the most intriguing and meaningful mathematical concepts, from the very origins of numbers to Homer’s Last Theorem

The link between comedy and maths is not restricted to the Simpsons.

“I believe Dave Gorman has a maths degree from Manchester and Dara O’Briain did physics which is a lot of applied maths,” he points out. “Ben Miller was a physicist and I have worked a lot with Robin Ince mixing comedy and science.

There have been various theories about why so many comedy writers have a background in maths.

Maths is all logic and therefore if you live playing with logic and twisting and breaking it you like illogicality as well.”

“Stand ups will often talk about nerdy things,” he adds and geeky subjects are not just for the minority.

“Geeks like Brian Cox are international superstars.”

“The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets is very much a book for adults but teenagers will love it,.”

Simon Singh will be talking about the book at an Off the Shelf event at The Foundry, University of Sheffield, Students’ Union, Western Bank, on Sunday