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The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – Simon Singh ****
Updated for paperback edition
Through the years we have had a whole slew of books dedicated to discovering the science or maths used in a fiction book, movie or TV show – think, for instance of The Physics of Star Trek or The Science of Middle Earth. And at first sight, Simon Singh’s new book (which he tells me has been brewing in his mind for a good few years) is more of the same, but in fact it takes rather a different approach. Where the other books look for the science etc. inherent in the world created in the storyline, Singh’s new title picks out the mathematics explicitly incorporated by the writers into the Simpsons (and in its companion show, Futurama, to which the final few chapters are dedicated).
I confess I haven’t much time for Futurama, but despite having always enjoyed the Simpsons, I hadn’t spotted the unusually high level of mathematical content, the result of several of the writers having maths, science or computer science backgrounds. Sometimes it manifests in just a passing reference – perhaps the title of a book glimpsed for a second, or something written on a blackboard in the background. At others the maths is central to the storyline.
In some ways, what should be a ‘best of both worlds’ crossover book that appeals to both Simpsons fans and maths nerds (publishers love crossover books) is in danger of being the opposite kind of product (I mean product in a mathematical sense – how else?), by being a book that only appeals to maths nerds who are also fans of the Simpsons. As I almost qualify for this, I was going to enjoy reading it anyway, but what saved it from being the mathematical equivalent of trainspotting (‘Did you know that in episode #382, the number 47 is referred to ironically as a square, even though everyone knows it isn’t, fnaar, fnaar!’*) was Singh’s indubitable writing skill and ability to bring in interesting asides and deviations.
Popular maths will always have a smaller audience than popular science for good reason, but if you have only the smallest interest in maths and some enjoyment of either the Simpsons or Futurama you should find this an excellent entertainment, and certainly a revelation when it comes to the lengths that the writers will go to get some little mathematical reference in.
* This isn’t a real example, but the sort of thing I mean
Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book.
At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…
This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.
It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …
‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.
There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…