I ventured into London last Friday after securing tickets to see Simon Singh, David X. Cohen and Al Jean talk maths and The Simpson’s at the Science Museum.
The event coincided with the paperback release of ‘The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets‘, which had been waiting patiently on my wishlist for several months. The evening meant not only getting my hands on the book, but also hearing the shows writers talk about the maths they’ve hidden within the most successful cartoon series of all time.
I adored the Simpsons when I was younger, I had several VHS compilations and I always made sure to catch the episode aired on BBC at 6pm on school nights. I still quote memorably sayings with my suitably ‘geeky’ friends and enjoy watching the odd repeat.
A favourite Simpsons maths moment:
The sister series, Futurama began in 1999 and I was hooked from the start. With a sci fi theme, added science puns and crazy story lines, it’s quite possibly my favourite animated comedy.
At the same age as my Simpsons addiction began I was also struggling with maths at school. I remember never grasping multiplication, so I would just wait for my friend to work it out, then I would dutifully copy him (cheers Billy!). I began extra maths lessons that lasted several years and I got used to the idea that I would always find it more challenging than other subjects.
By the time I sat my GCSEs I had caught up with my peers and now at least understood enough maths to allow me to take science at A Level. Even better than that, and with help from a great teacher, I enjoyed the subject. Together with some other students, I completed an extra GCSE in statistics during lunch breaks. I took the subject to AS level improve my core knowledge and do more advanced statistics; I even did a few maths challenges along the way.
However after the 1st year of A Level I decided to throw in the towel, one lesson on inverse trigonometric functions and the geography classroom beckoned…
After my up and down journey with maths, it was surprising to learn just how much it was engrained within my favourite childhood show.
So at 6:30 on Friday evening I was at the Science Museum eagerly standing in line waiting for my book to be signed. My 10 year old self was jumping for joy. Along with a sold out crowd we took our seats in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre ready for the main event. Introduced by ‘Morbo the Annihilator‘ and with a special London themed Futurama introduction, Simon Singh provided an small preview of the maths and comedy that the shows writers have provided.
I was worried that not having read the book (or understanding advanced mathematics!) would be a disadvantage at this event, but actually the discussion was a brilliant introduction to the text.
David X. Cohen began writing for the Simpsons and then co-created Futurama, he also holds a degree in Physics from Harvard and a Masters in Computer Science from UC Berkeley. Al Jean writes for the Simpsons and graduated from Harvard with a degree in Mathematics. Both gravitated towards comedy writing after working on The Harvard Lampoon.
I will always be jealous of people that naturally grasp mathematics and I’m even more jealous of those that have also written for the Simpson’s and/or Futurama. Being good at maths and funny- that’s the dream!
The discussion centred around the relationships between having an advanced maths degree and having an aptitude for comedy writing. BothDavid X. Cohen and Al Jean expressed shock that the jokes and ‘freeze frame’ gags planted over 10 years ago were still bring so much entertainment and even an entire book! It was interesting to hear the backstory behind individual puns and the origins of Futurama. As an added bonus, we even got a sneak preview of the upcoming Simpsons/Futurama crossover.
If you want to hear David X. Cohen, Al Jean and Simon Singh for yourself more check out this Science Weekly podcast from The Guardian.
Reading the book over the weekend, I was struck at how much I could understand (thanks to Simon Singh’s explanations!) and by the sheer amount of mathematics sneaked into both programmes. I particularly enjoyed remembering the exact episode being described from my youth and then learning about all the references I’d missed.
I think they’ll always be a little bit of me that wishes that I’d taken maths (and physics) further and this book reaffirmed my overall appreciation of the beauty of maths. It has also left me re-watching old Simpsons and Futurama episodes and seeing them in a completely new light.
Here’s some footage from the evening courtesy of the Science Museum: