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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
The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.
Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.
May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…
Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.
If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …
Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.
The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad – not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…