Simon Singh – The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

Simposon & Their Mathematical Secrets - Simon Singh


In Simon Singh’s ‘The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets”, now published in paperback Simon explains how writers have included mathematical jokes throughout the cartoon’s twenty-five year history. Here Simon Singh answers some questions I put to him.

I love the scene with Lisa surrounded by all her books including the one with Euler’s identity! I suppose if I had to pick a favourite mathematics reference in The Simpsons, then it would be that one – do you have a favourite?
It has to be Fermat’s last theorem, which appears in two episodes, namely “Treehouse of Horror VI” and “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace”. My first book was all about Fermat’s notorious problem, so it is close to my heart and seeing it make cameo appearances in the world’s favorite TV show was very exciting. I guess I need to get out more.

In both episodes, we see an equation which seems to defy Fermat’s last theorem, because we have two twelfth powers that seem to add to a third twelfth power. Moreover, if you check the equations they seem to hold true, so who is right, Pierre de Fermat or Homer Simpson. The conflict is resolved when you realise that Homer has merely found a near-miss solution, which means it is accurate to a dozen or so significant figures; close enuogh to fool your calculator, but close enough to defy Fermat.
(For more details on this – see this Numberphile video)

Thinking about your own teachers, particularly Mathematics teachers, who inspired you and why?
I was lucky that I had a great maths teacher – Mr Stephens – and he taught me for seven years in a row. He was knowledgable and enthusiastic, and he introduced us to interesting problems, such as Fermat’s last theorem and the 4-colour map problem. Just as important as having a great maths teacher was having a great curriculum, one that allowed him to dig deep into the maths and one that challenged us as students. I fully accept that this sort of curriculum (1970s O Level and AO Level) only suits a small minority of students, but it turned my class into confident mathematicians, scientists and engineers. I started with a slide rule and log tables when I was 11, we were doing calculus at AO level, and the sixth form Further Maths made my head hurt.

Even high ability students often lack confidence in Mathematics, what do you think Mathematics teachers can do to help students have a ‘can do’ attitude towards Mathematics?
If students lack ambition, then I think it is a habit that they learn once they reach secondary school. Unless students are stretched, then they become very confident within their comfort zone, and probably bored too. I am not a teacher, and I am just brainstorming for two minutes, but it strikes me that the most able students need to be in a state of regular bafflement, enjoying the fact that they are wrestling with new concepts, and having the confidence to know that they will resolve confusions with a bit (maybe quite a bit) of mental effort.

I am willing to be challenged on this, but my impression is that the best students today leave school at eighteen knowing less than my peer group did when we left school around 1980. In other words, despite more money, more resources and all the great stuff  on the internet, students know less than they used to. I assume that middling students and previously struggling students now leave school with better numeracy and more confidence with maths, which is certainly a good thing, but it should not be a case of “either/or”. We should be able to stretch the best and encourage the rest at the same time.

There is currently a shift in the teaching of computing – would you like to see elements of coding included in Mathematics lessons?
I have very little notion of what is taught in schools with respect to computing and coding. My instinct is to leave maths teachers to teach maths, and create a separate optional GCSE in coding/computing. Ideally such a GCSE would be quite tough and aimed at people who genuinely want to learn about the guts of computing, but I think the ethos of GCSEs is that they contain material of similar difficulty regardless of the subject. In my ideal world we would have GCSE+ exams which cover material beyond GCSE. This GCSE+ exam and course would become the crucial stepping stone towards A Level.

Simon Singh has created a PowerPoint presentation for teachers, which looks at the mathematics in The Simpsons. Notes are given with the slides.

Thank you so much to Simon Singh for his thoughts and insights here – something that has really struck a chord with me is his comment on teaching able students:

Somon Singh quote