Book Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (by Simon Singh)

Simpsons Math

Question: What is the volume of a pizza of thickness a and radius z?

Answer: pi.z.z.a

Who would have ever imagined that the popular animated series The Simpsons is full of mathematics topics?! “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” by Simon Singh is a fascinating exploration of the various mathematical topics that appear (sometimes quite subtly) in various episodes of this television series.

The book starts with some interesting background information on the writers for the show. It is very surprising to learn that quite a few of them have very strong mathematical education credentials (at Universities such as Harvard, Berkeley, and Princeton), and that almost all of them at some point in their education/careers had to make a difficult decision: whether to pursue a career in a field related to mathematics, or whether to pursue a career as a comedy writer – and they all selected the second option.

Most of the rest of the book explores many, many different topics which surprisingly do appear in Simpsons episodes. These topics include pi, Fermat’s last theorem, topology, statistics, probability, infinity, and many other topics. There are also some obscure topics that are quite interesting – one such example is the ‘pancake sorting problem‘ – a problem so complex that it is the only topic for which Bill Gates has published a research paper! The book also includes brief sections of mathematical ‘geek humor’, which are fun to read as a short interlude between the more serious chapters.

One quibble with this book is that, while the title implies a 50/50 mix of The Simpsons and mathematics, the book is actually primarily about mathematics with topics triggered from Simpsons episodes, and the book also contains more than expected non-Simpsons-related topics. These range from the ‘degrees of separation’ topic to the entire section on Futurama at the end – this last section is interesting from a mathematics perspective, but it is not connected to The Simpsons (except for the author of both shows being the same). However, overall this is a minor point and it doesn’t take away from the many fascinating topics covered in this book.

In summary, if you are a math geek (quick test: if you liked the riddle from this book at the start of this post, then you probably fall in this category :-), then you will really enjoy this book. Simon Singh has done an amazing job of covering a wide variety of incredibly interesting mathematical topics, and by connecting it to The Simpsons for most topics throughout this book, he has made this much more enjoyable to read as compared to a book that is only on mathematical topics.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

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