Simon Singh: “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” | Talks at Google

Simon Singh: “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” | Talks at Google

SIMON SINGH: Great. Thank you very much for
inviting me here to speak today. So this is the
book– “The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets.” I’ve been working on
this book– I first started writing to the writers
about eight or nine years ago. And for the last
eight or nine years, I’ve been thinking
about this book and talking about this book. And whenever I talk
about “The Simpsons” and I say to people there’s
tons of maths hidden in “The Simpsons,” people are
always shocked and surprised. And what I’m trying
to do in this book is, I’m trying to explain
to people that there are lots of writers on
“The Simpsons” who love. There are lots of
writers on “The Simpsons” who studied mathematics
to degree level, to master’s level, to PhD level. Now they’re no longer
mathematicians, they’re now writers, but
they still love mathematics. And the way they
express that love is by putting little
bits of mathematics into the series– often
when we’re not looking. What sort of thing
am I talking about? Well, for example,
here’s an episode called, “Marge + Homer
Turn a Couple Play.” The story here is that
Buck “Home Run” Mitchell is married to Tabitha Vixx. And Tabitha Vixx and
Buck have a marital spat. Their marriage is in trouble. They go and talk
to Homer and Marge and Homer and Marge
repair their marriage. And by the end of the episode
everything’s all right. But the very finale of
the episode, Tabitha proclaims her love to Buck. But at the end of the
episode, at the same time, on the Jumbo-Vision screen
at Springfield Stadium, what you see is this question up
on the Jumbo-Vision screen. And it asks the crowd, what’s
the attendance at the game? Is it 8191, is it
8128, is it 8208, or is there no way to tell? OK. And nobody ever noticed
this, because everybody’s paying attention to Tabitha. Nobody ever noticed
these numbers. But each one of these
numbers is there for a very special reason. It’s there because each
one of those numbers is mathematically significant. So for example, you take
the first number, 8191. 8191 is a prime number. Some of you may
have spotted that. But it’s not just
any old prime number, it’s a Mersenne prime number. So Mersenne prime numbers
have this very special form. They’re of the form 2 to
the power of p minus 1, where p is also a prime number. So in this case, if you
raise it to the power 13, 2 to the power of 13
minus 1, you get 8191. So somebody put in that
8191, because, OK, it’s a plausible number
for a baseball crowd. But it’s also a Mersenne number. And Mersenne primes
are very special. I think the ten
biggest prime numbers we know are all Mersenne primes. So somebody put some
thought into that. And the next number is the same. The next number is 8128. 8128 is a very special number. It’s what’s known
as a perfect number, and a perfect number is
one of those numbers where the divisors is of the number
add up to the number itself. So the simplest example is 6. 1, 2, and 3 divide into 6,
and 1 plus 2 plus 3 equals 6. Next perfect number is 28
because 1, 2, 4, 7, and 14 divide into 28 and
they add up to 28. You might think
they’re fairly common. 6 and 28, you
know, we’re already getting a couple
of perfect numbers. But the third perfect
number is 496. And the fourth perfect
number is 8128. And they get fewer
and further between. I think Rene Descartes
said that perfect numbers, like perfect men, are very rare. And they’re rare,
and they’re special, so they get to be
on the scoreboard. Third number, this is a number
I hadn’t really heard of, a type of number I
hadn’t heard of before I started writing this book. 8208, what’s special about
8208 is, it’s got four digits and so what you do is you raise
each digit to the fourth power. Four digits, so you raise each
digit to the fourth power. 8 to the power 4
plus 2 to the power 4 plus 0 to the power
plus 8 to the power 4. Sorry, let me say that again. 8 to the power 4 plus 2 to the
power 4 plus 0 to the power 4 plus 8 to the power 4. Add those together and
you get back to 8208. So the number regenerates
itself from its own components. It’s kind of in love
with itself and so it’s called a
narcissistic number. And again these
numbers are very rare. There’s less than a hundred
of them that we know of. And the biggest one is that. I think it’s about
39 digits long. And you might want to have
a think this afternoon– because I know the kind of
people you are –why you cannot have a narcissistic number
with more than 39 digits, OK. They’re rare, they’re special,
there’s less than 100 of them. They get to have a special
place up on the score board. So this is the kind of
thing I’m talking about, really niche mathematical
knowledge embedded within an episode for
no particular reason. I had to mention this one. The cinema, the movie
theater in Springfield is called the Springfield
Googolplex Theatre. And I guess this is part of
your history here at Google. So I’ll tell it to you anyway. The googol, of course. Again, you have to
remember, the first time the googolplex appeared
in the Simpsons was back in the early 1990s,
so before the company Google existed. So nowadays people
may have an idea about what a googol
is mathematically, what a googolplex
is mathematically. But when this first
appeared on the Simpsons, nobody had heard of a googol. Nobody had heard
of a googolplex. And so it was a really
in-joke for the mathematicians who were watching. The name googol was invented by
a mathematician and his nephew. The mathematician
was Edward Kasner. And he was going for a
walk with his nephew. And he said, okay– a million’s
got 6 0’s, a billion’s got 9 0’s, a trillion’s got 12 0’s. What do we call a
number with 100 0’s? And his nephew said why
don’t we call it a googol? And that’s where the
name googol came from. A googol is a number
1 followed by 100 0’s. And then the uncle
said, OK, well a googol sounds like a good number. What about a googolplex? What would a googolplex be? And the nephew
thought about that, and he said, OK, that’s easy. A googolplex is 1
followed by so many 0’s that your arm gets tired. Now that’s not very
mathematically reliable, so the uncle said, OK, well a
googol is 10 to the power 100. A googolplex is 10 to
the power of googol. So again, this is a really
mathematical in-joke in “The Simpsons.” Now, who’s putting
these jokes in there? Who’s making these references? Well, that particular reference
was probably made by this chap here. In the back row,
second from the left, is a chap called Mike Reiss. I say probably Mike
because the writing process on “The Simpsons”
is very collaborative, and we’re going
back 20 years now, and so it’s hard to
remember who said what. And people are very generous
in terms of sharing credit. But it was probably
Mike Reiss in this case. I met the “Simpsons”
writers last year and I chatted to all of them. And I met Mike. And Mike’s interest in maths
goes back a long, long way. When he was in the high school
math team, he was very good, he was very strong. He competed against
other schools, competed at state level. He was a very bright, a
very strong mathematician. He was also a very
keen writer and loved comedy, loved comedy writing. So even when he was younger
than that, when he was, I think, 11 or 12, he told me
he went to the dentist one day, and he was waiting
in the waiting room, and he was reading through
“New York” magazine. So, not “The New Yorker,” but
“New York” magazine, and he was looking at the
back page where they have the cartoon
caption competition. And he was looking at the
cartoon caption competition, the dentist came back
and said, oh, look, Mike. I see you’re looking at the
cartoon caption competition. I enter that
competition every month. I always manage to think
of something every month. And Mike said, yes, so do I.
And I’ve won it three times. And he was competing against
TV comedy writers in New York and winning this competition. So he had this talent for
comedy writing and mathematics. Somebody else who was
in the room– in fact, the chap who told
me it was probably Mike who came up with
that joke, was Al Jean. Al Jean, again this is another
high school photo of him in the mathematics team. There he is in the
back row in the middle. Al Jean, another very
bright young mathematician. In fact he was so bright that
he was taken out of– well, he was put into
a special program for elite mathematicians. This was going back to,
I guess, the mid ’70s. And the idea was America
wanted to compete with the Russian elite
mathematical education system. And so people like Al Jean were
hot housed in special summer courses. And he was such a bright
young mathematician, that he went off to Harvard
to study mathematics when he was just 16 years old. So these are really
bright people. Al and Mike met at
Harvard, they left Harvard, they went into comedy writing. They joined “The
Simpsons” They worked on that very first
episode of “The Simpsons” and even in that very first
episode you get mathematics, you get mathematical references. But the interesting
thing is that, if you’re looking at “The Simpsons,”
and if you look at it now and you spot a mathematical
reference– now, you know, you’ll be more eagle-eyed and
more keen to find these things. But if you find a
mathematical reference it could be that the
writer of that episode is not necessarily
an ex-mathematician. Let me explain how that happens. This is an episode
called “Marge in Chains.” Now, you may remember this one. Marge is accused of theft
from the Quik-E-Mart, and she’s put on trial, and
the star witness is Apu. And Lionel Hutz, the attorney,
is trying to discredit Apu and saying to him, you’ve
got a terrible memory. Why should we trust
your evidence? Why should we trust
your witness testimony? You’ve got a terrible memory. And Apu responds by saying, no
no, I’ve got a great memory. In fact my memory is
so good, in fact, I can recite pi to
40,000 decimal places, and the last digit is 1. So he could have said anything. He could’ve said I can remember
the Springfield telephone directory. But he says pi. And he talks about
reciting the digits of pi. Now, there are a couple
of interesting things behind the scenes of
this one simple line that I want to explain to you. First of all, why 40,000 digits? Why was Apu claiming
40,000 digits? Well that was the world record
in 1993 for memorizing pi. So it was a genuine
world record, and Apu claimed to
be able to match it. Sure enough, the
40,000th digit is 1. OK, can’t get that wrong. In fact, you can’t
get that wrong if the writing team
consults a world pi expert. They contacted a guy
called David Bailey at NASA at the time. And David Bailey was a
world authority on pi. And he’d developed something
called the spigot algorithm. When I was at
school, I was always told that if you
want to calculate the fifth digit of pi,
you need to calculate the first, second,
third, and fourth digits. If you want to calculate
the hundredth digit of pi, you’ve got to calculate
single digit before it. The great thing with
the spigot algorithm is that it’s like a tap. A spigot is a tap
and it drips, and it will drip whichever
decimal place you want. So if you want the millionth
decimal place of pi, you just adjust the tap, and
the millionth decimal place drips out. And that’s what David
Bailey invented. And he could’ve just
dripped the 40,000 decimal place, except the
spigot algorithm only works in hexadecimal,
which is not very friendly for a TV audience. So instead of dripping the
40,00th digit in hexadecimal, he sent them all 40,000 digits
in a big package and they could go figure out for themselves. But the other thing I wanted
to explain about this line is that this is one
of those episodes that wasn’t written by
a mathematician. It was actually written
by a couple of people. It was written by Josh
Weinstein and Bill Oakley. And neither of them
are mathematicians. So the question is, why are
non-mathematicians putting math into their episodes as well? And the way this happened
was– I met Josh last year, and he said that
that wasn’t his line. He and Bill didn’t
come up with that line. What had happened was that
they were given that episode to write, they went away
for a couple of weeks, and they wrote the
broad structure of the story, the
key plot points. They put in the key jokes. And then they bring it back to
the rest of the writing team. And the rest of the
writing team will maybe identify the weaker jokes
and take them out, maybe help make some of the
good jokes even better. And it’s at that stage
that around the table there will almost certainly
be one or two mathematicians. And that’s the stage at which
you can introduce mathematics into a script that otherwise
was devoid of mathematics. So in this case
the original script said– Josh dug this
up from his garage, the original script
–Lionel Hutz says to Apu, “So, Mr.
Nahasapeemapetilon, if that is your real name, have
you ever forgotten anything?” And Apu says, “No. In India I was
known as Mr. Memory. I featured in over 400 films,
including ‘Here Comes Mr. Memory.'” So nothing to do with pi. But you can imagine,
around that table the mathematicians
would’ve said, yeah here’s an opportunity to get some
maths in, some mathematics. But it’s also an opportunity
to build up Apu’s back story. Because you may or
may not be aware that Apu is also
a mathematician. If you piece together
different elements from different episodes,
you get his back story. And Apu studied at Caltech. He went to Caltech–
not the California Institute of Technology,
but the Calcutta Institute of Technology. And then after graduating,
he came to America and he studied for a
PhD in computer science from Professor Frink. And he studied at the
Springfield Heights Institute for Technology, which has a
rather unfortunate acronym, as you’ve already spotted. So you get the
mathematics in here because it fits in
with Apu’s background and you can have a
bit of fun with pi. It’s easy to think that
the math in the Simpsons is going to be
linked to Lisa, it’s going to be linked
to Professor Frink, it’s going to be linked
to Apu, the kind of more mathematically-minded
characters. But you find that Homer and
all the other characters often exhibit, or get involved
with, mathematical references. So, for example,
this is an episode called “The Wizard of
Evergreen Terrace,” where Homer tries to
become an inventor. Again, it’s kind of
a freeze frame gag, you’ve got to really look
carefully, because in one scene there’s a blackboard. And on the blackboard
you have– that’s a reference to the
mass of the universe. It’s a science equation. That’s an equation that relates
to the mass of the Higgs boson, mass h 0. And if you work
that out, you find that that predicts a
mass that, I think, is about double the actual
mass of the Higgs boson. But that’s not bad. This was happening 15
years before the Higgs was even discovered. In terms of mathematics,
you get a topology reference down here about the reshaping
of doughnuts into spheres. But you have to nibble at
them rather than twist them. But the one that really
caught my eye– and this is the episode, I
think, that really got me interested in all of this
mathematics in “The Simpsons.” This equation here– a
number to the 12th power plus another number
to the 12th power equals another number
to the 12th power. Now that caught my eye
because the first book that I wrote in the UK was
called “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” In the US, it was called
“Fermat’s Enigma.” And it’s all about this
chap here, Pierre de Fermat, who was a French mathematician. Very, very quickly I’ll
tell you the story. He was studying an ancient
Greek text one day, the Arithmetica by Diophantus. And Diophantus
talked about the fact that there are lots of solutions
to the Pythagorean equation, x squared plus y squared
equals z squared. 3 squared plus 4 squared
equals 5 squared. 5 squared plus 12 squared
equals 13 squared. There are lots of
solutions to that equation. There are an infinite number
of solutions, in fact. But Fermat wondered what
happens if you increase the power to something
bigger than two. So for example, x to the power
of 3 plus y to the power of 3 equals z to the power of 3,
or any power bigger than 2. Can you find any solutions
to any of those equations? Now, Pierre de Fermat
claimed that he could prove, without
a shadow of a doubt, that there were no solutions. He wrote in the
margin of his book, “I have a truly marvelous
proof of this fact. I have a demonstrationum
mirabilum. But this margin is too
narrow to contain that proof. Hanc marginis
exiguitas non caperet.” And then he dropped dead. I Or a few years
later he dropped dead. People found the
book, they said, well, Fermat says he can prove these
equations have no solutions. But he doesn’t tell
us what that proof is. And for 350 years, everybody
tries to rediscover the proof. Eventually a chap
called Sir Andrew Wiles rediscovers the proof. And we now know for a fact
that none of these equations have any solutions. So you will never find a
12 power plus a 12 power equalling a 12 power. And yet that’s what
Homer gives us here. And if you check that,
if you’ve got a phone, you check it on your phone
calculator, that works. So Homer is defying
Andrew Wiles, he’s defying Pierre
de Fermat, because he has found a solution
that seems to work. Now why does it seem to work? Well if you calculate
it more accurately, it’s what’s called a
near-miss solution, because the actual
solution is the following. It’s not 4472, but
4472.000000 dedede dah. So it’s called a
near-miss solution. It’s a solution
that will fool you. It’s a solution that will
fool your calculators. But if you’ve got a
precise calculator, one with a proper long
display, you can find out that it’s a near-miss error. So again this is a lovely
example of one of the writers, in this case, David
X. Cohen, going to the trouble of putting
something in the back of shot, a little gag, a little reference
the lovers of mathematics will spot, will be annoyed by,
and then will have resolved. So it’s just a prank. It’s just a prank for
those who love mathematics. And there’s tons– I’ll just see
how we’re doing for time here. I mean there is tons more. There’s another reference
of Fermat’s Last Theorem in “Tree House of Horror
VI.” “Treehouse of Horror VI” also has references to
Cartesian coordinates, has references to p versus np,
that great unsolved problem. It has references to
Euler’s equation again, has references to
the Utah teapot. It has stuff in ASCII. There’s so much
in “The Simpsons” that you could write a whole
book about it, in fact. So rather than go on about
“The Simpsons” further, I did want to talk about
“Futurama,” because “Futurama” is the sister series
of “The Simpsons” and it has just as much
mathematics as “The Simpsons.” The story here is
that, in the mid ’90s, Fox could see that “The
Simpsons” was a huge success and they asked Matt Groening
to come up with something else. He came up with Futurama. He worked with David X.
Cohen to develop the idea. And David is one of
the guiding lights of the series, worked
on it ever since. And he’s a
mathematician at heart. I think he studied
physics at Harvard then did computer
science, a master’s in computer science at Berkeley. And has then written
mathematical papers. And he loves mathematics. He’s put mathematics
into “The Simpsons” and he’s going to
put mathematics into “Futurama” as well. And he was also keen to
recruit mathematicians to join the “Futurama”
writing team. It was quite important
not to poach writers from “The Simpsons,” so
new writers came on board. People like Ken Keeler, who has
a PhD in applied mathematics. People like Jeff
Westbrook, who was a professor at Yale University. So you had new mathematicians
coming to join “Futurama,” working with David X. Cohen to
create a series which was also going to have tons
of mathematics in it. This is a picture of Ken Keeler. It’s not the greatest
picture of Ken Keeler. But it’s of great
historical importance, because this relates
to an episode called “The Prisoner of Benda,” where
Professor Farnsworth invents a mind-switching machine. And everybody starts switching
minds left, right, and center. And at the end of
the episode everybody gets bored and wants to get
back to their original minds. But the mind-switching machine,
once two people have swapped, they cannot swap back. So the question is this–
given any number of people, given any amount
of mind switching, is there a way to guarantee
that everybody can get back to their original minds? And Ken Keeler developed
a little theorem. And he’s very
modest about it, he doesn’t think it’s a great
piece of mathematics. But it’s an interesting,
fun piece of mathematics. And this is him scribbling
it up on the whiteboard in the Futurama
offices, which is why it’s of great
historical significance. But he was able to
prove that, regardless of the size of the
switching, regardless of the number of switching, if
you introduce two fresh bodies into the room, they provide
you with enough wriggle room for everybody else to
get back to their bodies. So, and I just wanted
to mention this because this is the only example
in the history of television of a writer creating a
bespoke theorem in order to complete a plot. So that’s the extent
of the kind of stuff that goes on in “Futurama.” I’ll just give you one
example from “Futurama,” which is the number 1729. 1729 crops up in “Futurama.” It crops up as the hull registry
number of the Nimbus spaceship. It crops up also as
Bender’s unit number. Bender the alcoholic robot. It crops up in “The
Farnsworth Parabox” as one of the universities
that’s featured. So 1729 keeps cropping up. If it was just the hull registry
number, OK, we can ignore it. But the fact it
keeps cropping up means that it must have some
mathematical significance, given the fact we have Ken
Keeler and David X Cohen and Jeff Westbrook
working on this team. And one reason why
1729 is special is that it’s called
a Harshad number. And Harshad numbers
have this odd property. If you take the digits
of 1729 and add them up, they come to 19. And 19 divides into 1729. And that’s all it has to
be, to be a Harshad number. What’s particularly
special about 1729 is, if you reverse 19, you get
the other factor of 1729. Yeah. That always gets an ooh, that
does, that always gets an ooh. So it’s a very special
type of Harshad number, but in fact there
are four numbers that exhibit this property. So it’s special but
not special enough to justify being cited so
many times in “Futurama.” And the real reason why
1729 keeps cropping up is because of this
gentleman here. This is Srinivasa
Ramanujan, arguably the most talented
or naturally gifted mathematician of
the 20th century. He grew up in southern India,
was from a very poor family– I think his three siblings
all died in infancy. He suffered from
smallpox but survived. His family just about managed
to give him a basic education. He couldn’t get to university,
couldn’t get to college, but still he would
study mathematics by going to the library. And he’d pick out books
and study the mathematics within them. And pretty soon he
wasn’t just studying the mathematics
in these books, he was creating new
mathematics, new theorems. And eventually he
had a whole package of these, about 120
theorems that he’d created. And nobody could understand
what he was doing. And so he sent them to
a professor, GH Hardy, in Cambridge, England. And they arrived
on Hardy’s desk. And Hardy was blown away. He couldn’t believe what
had appeared out of nowhere from an unknown mathematician
on the other side of the planet. And his immediate
reaction was to invite Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. And GH Hardy was a
formidable mathematician. He’s credited with galvanizing
English mathematics at a time when English
mathematics was in the doldrums compared to France and Germany. So he really was spearheading
British mathematics. And yet, he said, if there’s
only one great thing I’ve done in my life, it was to
bring Ramanujan over to England. Because when he came to
Cambridge, he flourished. His genius was recognized. He became a Fellow of the Royal
Society– one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society. He became the first
Indian to become a Fellow of Trinity
College, Cambridge. And his mathematical
potential was being fulfilled. Sadly, however, physically,
he was really suffering. The cold weather
really hurt him. He was a strict vegetarian,
he was a strict Hindu, so the diet didn’t
really suit him either. He came down with
tuberculosis, eventually. And he went back
to India and died in his 30s, tragically young. But just before we went back
to India, when he was ill he was in a nursing home
in Putney in South London. And Hardy went to visit him. And Hardy took a train
from Cambridge to London, took a taxi from the
station to the nursing home, went into the hospital,
sat next to Ramanujan. And, struggling to
make conversation, perhaps, Ramanujan
said, what was the name of the
taxi you came in? And Hardy said it wasn’t very
interesting, it was just 1729. And Ramanujan said, 1729? No, that is a really
interesting number. It’s an interesting number
because 1729 is the smallest number that’s the sum of two
cubes in two different ways. Let me just unpack that. 1729 is 10 cubed plus 9 cubed. Now most numbers aren’t
the sum of two cubes, so that’s interesting. 1729 is also the sum of
12 cubed plus 1 cubed. Very few numbers are
the sum of two cubes in two different ways. And this is the
smallest number that is the sum of two cubes
in two different ways. And Ramanujan just knew that. He just plucked
that from thin air. He had a natural
understanding of numbers. He used to say that at
night, while he was asleep, one of the Hindu goddesses
would write mathematical truths on his tongue that would somehow
become absorbed into his brain. And he could just pluck
these things from thin air. And because it was one
of the last conversations that Ramanujan had before
he left to go back to India, and before he died,
that conversation has gone down in history. And 1729 has gone down
in mathematical folklore. And that’s why it keeps on
appearing in “Futurama.” It’s Ken Keeler’s way
of just acknowledging this great genius, Ramanujan. And it’s kind of
wonderful, I think, that Ramanujan, some 100 years
after he started corresponding with Hardy is
remembered in this way, in this sci-fi animated
sitcom called “Futurama.” It doesn’t just stop there,
because you can then ask, OK that number’s the
smallest number that’s the sum of two cubes
in two different ways. You can then ask, well
what number is the smallest one that’s a sum of two cubes
in three different ways? And you end up with
an eight digit number, something extraordinary,
something like 83 million or something. But that number also
appears in “Futurama.” It’s called a taxicab
number of order 3, and it appears as a
taxicab number in Futurama. So I’m going to
stop there, but we do have 10 minutes,
or a bit more, even, if people have questions. I’ve skipped over lot
of things and may not have explained things
in complete detail. So if people have questions, I
think we have two microphones. I’m very happy to try and
answer as many as I can. AUDIENCE: Does this work? Yeah. Hey, awesome seeing you here. It’s actually really awesome,
because I saw you on YouTube before, on Numberphile– SIMON SINGH: Oh, great! AUDIENCE: –talking
about Fermat’s Theorem. So the question was, this
is really cool stuff, and can we look
forward to seeing more of this in a more popular
medium than closed rooms? SIMON SINGH: Oh, well, yeah. I hope so. The book’s been published in
the UK for about two weeks now. And in the UK, the mainstream
press have picked up on it, radio shows have
picked up on it, the tabloid press
have picked up on it. There’s something in the
Huffington Post today. So what’s really nice is,
OK, this is a big thick book, and not many people
may buy the book. Not many people may
come to talks like this. But I think it’ll
get disseminated through all these other media. And I think the writers
are really happy. I called the book “The
Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets,” but it’s
never been a secret. The writers have never
tried to hide this. They’ve just put
it in places where people might not
necessarily look. And I think they’re really
pleased that people are now noticing this. I think one of the
reasons they do this is because they think
of themselves when they were teenagers and how they
loved mathematics. And maybe it was
hard for them to find ways to see other people
loving mathematics. And yet if you’re
a teenager now, and you see “The
Simpsons,” and you notice that there’s a
narcissistic number on there, and you think, hang on,
the people writing this must love mathematics
as much as I do. And maybe it will
make them feel better about their love of mathematics. Thank you. AUDIENCE: Thanks. AUDIENCE: Hi. I had a two part question. The first part is, I assume
that Matt Groening probably has a lot of support
for these kind of jokes and he gives them a
lot of encouragement. And then the second part is, why
don’t other TV shows try and do the same thing? Seeing how popular
“The Simpsons” is. SIMON SINGH: Yes, I
get the impression that Matt Groening,
from the very start, gave writers the
freedom to express their particular interests. So, again from that very,
very first episode– I call it the first
episode, “Bart the Genius.” Bart’s having lunch and
one of the fellow students opens a lunch box, and it’s
there for a split second. But if you look carefully, it’s
an Anatoly Karpov lunch box. Anatoly Karpov was world chess
champion in the early ’70s. Not many people would
necessarily know that. He was also a mathematician–
not many people know that. He also is responsible for
auctioning the most valuable stamp from the Belgian Congo. Not many people
know that either. So that kind of niche know–
But the fundamental rule was, these references must not
get in the way of the jokes, and they must not get
in the way of the plot. And so with the
googolplex joke reference, as I’m fairly sure Mike
Reiss came up with that, somebody around
the writing table said, yeah who’s
going to get that? Nobody’s heard of
what a googolplex is. And I think Mike Reiss
responded, well, yeah, maybe not many
people will get it, but how funny can you
make the name of a cinema? So you haven’t lost anything,
and maybe you gain something. And then, why “The
Simpsons” and why “Futurama”– I have a
chapter in the book about why mathematicians are
involved in comedy. And there are lots of them,
not just within “The Simpsons.” But we have people in the
UK, people like Dave Gorman, people like Dara O Briain. Tom Lehrer, the finest musical
satirist of the 20th century. There is a link between
mathematics and comedy, and I talk about
that in the book. But then I think
I asked Al Jean, but why have you all
congregated here? And there are a couple
of reasons for that. But I think the most interesting
one was, Al Jean said that when you do mathematics– and
he made a distinction between mathematics, and
science, and everything else. And maybe with computer
science as well. That in mathematics
and computer science, whatever you write down happens. Whatever line of logic you write
down, the next line of logic flows. You are in complete control
of what you are doing. As a mathematician and
as a computer scientist. You are in control. Whereas science is messy,
and equipment breaks, and the weather gets
in the way, and you don’t have enough statistics. So maths is pure
and perfect, science is impure and imperfect. Animation is pure and perfect. What you write in your
script will be read. What you draw on your storyboard
will appear on screen. Whereas with live action
comedy, again, you’re dealing with the weather,
you’re dealing with directors, you’re dealing with
actors and so on. So he drew the
parallel– I think his line was, he said that
animation is a mathematician’s medium. So maybe that explains why. Yeah AUDIENCE: Sorry to
break the format. This is not a question,
but just an observation. I wanted to take the opportunity
to say thank you for your work with the protecting the right
of authors and individuals to present their opinions. The Defamation Act this year,
and of course, the BCA lawsuit. So thank you. SIMON SINGH: Thank
you very much. Just a bit of background
in case people don’t know. But I mean, people like
to think of England as a kind of land of justice
and fairness and free speech. But we still actually
have, as of today, really quite harsh libel laws. People from all over the
world would come to London to sue for libel. It was the libel
capital of the world. You’d end up with
Danish newspapers being sued by Icelandic banks. Ukrainian oligarchs suing
Ukrainian newspapers. All in London. Ridiculous. Saudi billionaire sued a
New York author in London. And it got so bad that
your President actually brought in a law that said,
if you’re an American, you get sued in London,
your assets are safe. Because we have
so little respect for English law
in terms of libel. And that was really
important because it actually helped us begin to
change our laws. I got sued for libel, as
did a few other people who were science writers,
health writers. And people just thought
it was ridiculous that you can’t write about
science without being sued for libel. It was ridiculous. In science, the
way we move forward in science, and
many other areas, is through robust
argument and debate. Anyway it took a few years,
but eventually, we now have a new defamation
act, Defamation Act 2013, which is much more reasonable. And that will become law,
literally in the next week or two. And what was really
great about that was, it was very much a
grassroots campaign. Because bloggers were
getting sued for libel, getting threatened with libel. Local newspapers,
online newsgroups. We have an organization in
Britain called Mumsnet, where parents share their experiences. They were getting
threatened with libel. It was ridiculous. The only problem left,
once this law becomes law in the next week or two,
is Northern Ireland. Because Northern Ireland still
isn’t updating its laws yet. And that could become the new
libel capital of the world. So you might find yourself
being dragged to Belfast if you say something which
somebody doesn’t like. But thank you very
much, thank you. AUDIENCE: That guy kind of
stole my thunder a little bit. Thanks for coming and
I’ve read all your books. I read “The Code Book” twice. Great book. But I think the most
important book you’ve written, in my humble opinion,
is “Trick or Treatment.” if I was king of the world,
I’d make everyone read it. And I’m curious to
know, are you still active in the science-based
medicine community? Do you do anything, are there
any plans to update that book? SIMON SINGH: Yeah, thank you
very much for your kind words. So my backgrounds in physics. That’s what I study,
that’s what I love. Maths is kind of the same kind
of thing, so I love maths. I love writing about that. But I ended up writing this
book about alternative medicine because– couple of reasons. One was, I had
heard about students going on their gap years. Before going to college,
they’d travel around the world. And they would use homeopathy
to protect themselves against malaria. And I couldn’t
believe this was true so I asked a young student
to go to 10 homeopaths. And she said, I don’t like
using conventional treatment. Can you give me something
that I can use instead? And 10 out of 10
homeopaths said, here, use these sugar pills. And her story was
that she was going to go to West
Africa for 10 weeks on a truck tour, where there
are strains of malaria that will kill you within three days. And there are examples of
people that use homeopathy and who came back to Europe
and suffered multiple organ failure because
of severe malaria. So I was shocked that
fairly bright young people were being taken
in by homeopathy. So I sat down with a professor
of complementary medicine, in fact. But a very rigorous
scientist, what we call evidence-based
medicine is what he follows. And so he’s been examining
alternative medicine for the last 10 years. And the alternative
therapists hate him. Because sometimes he finds
something that works, and he’ll say that, because
he’s a good scientist. But often he’ll find
things that don’t work, which aren’t backed
by evidence, and which might even be dangerous. So the alternative
therapists hate him. He was the world’s
first professor of complementary
medicine, and they said, if you’re a professor
of complementary medicine, you should be championing
complementary medicine. And he says, well, look, if I
was a professor of toxicology, I wouldn’t be
championing toxins. It’s not how it works. So he and I, we
wrote a book which looked at all the different
alternative therapies. And one or two of them
work, and we say that, and most of them don’t. Some of them are
particularly dangerous. It was after writing that
book that I wrote something in a newspaper that that’s
why I got sued for libel. And I still occasionally write
about alternative medicine and support one
or two groups that are involved in challenging
alternative medicine. So for example, right now
we’ve got a horrendous magazine in Britain called “What
Doctors Don’t Tell You,” and you can buy it
in your supermarket, you can buy it at
newspaper outlets. And it essentially says that
doctors have got secrets that they’re not telling you. And we’re going to tell
you the real truth. And it’s just full of clap
trap, and dangerous clap trap. And people believe what’s in it. So we’re currently
talking to people to say– and again, I’m very
pro free speech. So if supermarkets want
to stock it and sell it, I can’t stop them. And I shouldn’t be able
to ban them from doing it. But I want these supermarkets
to know what they are selling. So that they’re aware
that, if they generally have a policy of
promoting good health and supporting their
customers in giving them proper information,
then do they really want to be stocking
this magazine? That’s their choice. But it’s one that I would
caution them against. So I’m still involved with
those kind of campaigns and those kind of issues. So yes. Thank you very, very much. If people do have
more questions, I’m going to be here
for five or ten minutes. So please do come and say hello. And thank you very
much for coming. Thank you.

20 Replies to “Simon Singh: “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” | Talks at Google”

  1. Forty minute video about Simpson and mathematics of which first ten minutes are about Simpsons and out of which five minutes are regarding mathematics and rest of the video is worship some Indian guy.

  2. I don't know if I can ever take a man in his mid 40's with a comedy haircut seriously. He's way to old to be experimenting with such a radical teenage hairstyle

  3. So you're saying that a lot of the hidden messages in shows and songs are actually subliminally teaching me something and not trying to make me join the illuminati???

  4. 22:10 — back to their minds , back to their bodies
    this makes for a great philosophical debate – what makes you a you? If the mindswapping/bodyswapping was possible, who (which entity – the one of my mind and the other body, or the one of my body and the other mind?) would be given my rights? (for example my name, my house, my wife (that would also depend on her, of course, but from the legal point of view, she would first have to divorce with the new entity that gained my rights and then marry to the other entity… whatever))

    If this is ever possible and there is a vote on that, I vote that the entity with my mind should be the one gaining my rights.

  5. The Code Book is one of those books that reads almost like a textbook, you learn a lot from it at an applied level, it's the only book I've ever finished as an adult. And then my cat peed on it. I should get another copy.

  6. so some writers on the show studied mathematics and they put math references into the show? i watched this whole thing thinking that there was some unique mathematical concepts used in designing…. i dunno, the plots of the episodes or the way characters appeared, or maybe some unique math used to create the simpsons universe as a mathematically sound parallel universe or something. i was left asking 'and….? your point is?'

  7. You could say that people who like mathematics appreciate the humour of numbers, so it would be natural for them to appreciate and point out subtle and not so subtle humour in other things too. And the man did a completely different calculation, and this time the answer wasn't 142857. Nah, just kidding; it was 142857.

  8. Is the African tribal haircut supposed to have some modern day significance? Considering his hair and clothing, one must wonder if he is in possession of a mirror. This guy gives new meaning to the phrase "attention seeking device."

  9. So, what's the answer for tonight's attendance??? I'm guessing "B" since it involves couples. Justification: "A" is an odd number, meaning someone is there unescorted, and "any 'narcisissm' probably isn't good for a couple," so I exclude "C," but "B" is even, so it's at least possible noone is unescorted, which would be "perfect."

  10. A normal conversation

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