Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets: Homer Simpson Does the Math

Peter Cannon -- January 14th, 2014

simpsonsLast month, while browsing in the shop of Manhattan’s National Museum of Mathematics, I discovered Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, recently published by Bloomsbury. As both a Simpsons and a math fan, I suddenly knew what book I wanted for Christmas. Happily, I found it under the family tree on December 25.

Singh, author of a number of popular science books, surveys the many mathematical in-jokes that have appeared over the years in The Simpsons as well as its sister show, Futurama. For example, in one episode, “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,” an equation appears on Homer’s blackboard that shows the sum of two distinct four-digit numbers, each raised to the 12th power, equal to a third four-digit number also raised to the 12th power. If true, this would violate Fermat’s famous last theorem, the subject of Singh’s 1997 book, Fermat’s Enigma. In 1995, Andrew Wiles of Princeton University proved Fermat’s centuries-old conjecture that no equation of this form exists for any exponent greater than two. But the left-hand and right-hand sides of Homer’s equation are close, so close that if you do the math on a standard calculator you get equality.

I was pleased, if not surprised, to learn that David S. Cohen, the writer who contributed the blackboard math to “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,” and other writers for The Simpsons were fans from an early age of Martin Gardner, whose autobiography, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, I covered in my blog of November 26, 2013. This isn’t a book for kids, but they may enjoy the easier “joke” exams it contains (e.g., Q: What did the number 0 say to the number 8?; A: Nice belt!).

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