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Blog

Pop-culture mathematics

By Tushna Commissariat

Earlier this week I went to hear a talk about mathematics…and The Simpsons. That’s right, I am indeed referring to the long-running animated TV show that is a satirical parody of middle-class American life and its unexpected but concrete mathematical vein. Surprising as it may sound, some of show’s scriptwriters have degrees in maths and physics, meaning that some very advanced concepts, problems and ideas from all of 20th-century mathematics and physics are littered around many of the show’s 535 episodes. Regular Physics World readers will have already seen that we have released the shortlist for our Book of the Year 2013 and that physicist and science communicator Simon Singh’s latest offering – The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – is one of 10 books on the list. I had the happy job of reading and reviewing Singh’s book for our “Between the lines: Christmas special” section in the December issue of the magazine.

Singh is currently on a UK-wide tour to promote the book and he visited Bristol this week to give a talk to “Chaos”, Bristol University’s physics society, and I popped along to hear him speak and have a quick chat with him afterwards. I won’t give away too much about the book or what we spoke about just yet, but I will say that it is a fun read for anyone who appreciates quirky humour and maths. While people notice the political, popular-culture and religious references in the show, the maths gags are easy to miss. This might be quite simply because they are blink-and-you-miss-it freeze-frame gags – meaning that you would almost always miss them if you were watching the show as it is aired live on the telly.

But, as Singh pointed out in his talk, it was around the late 1980s that increasing numbers of people had VCRs at home, so pausing the show mid-frame became possible. This was something the show’s creators and scriptwriters definitely cottoned on to. The writers apparently did their best to increase the show’s “comedic density” as well as its “nerdic density”, according to Singh. Undoubtedly, they have hit upon the right formula because this year (like Physics World itself) The Simpsons began its 25th season in September.

Do listen to our Book of the Year podcast on 17 December, where we will reveal this year’s prize winner and discuss Singh’s book.

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