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The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets – Simon Singh ****
Updated for paperback edition
Through the years we have had a whole slew of books dedicated to discovering the science or maths used in a fiction book, movie or TV show – think, for instance of The Physics of Star Trek or The Science of Middle Earth. And at first sight, Simon Singh’s new book (which he tells me has been brewing in his mind for a good few years) is more of the same, but in fact it takes rather a different approach. Where the other books look for the science etc. inherent in the world created in the storyline, Singh’s new title picks out the mathematics explicitly incorporated by the writers into the Simpsons (and in its companion show, Futurama, to which the final few chapters are dedicated).
I confess I haven’t much time for Futurama, but despite having always enjoyed the Simpsons, I hadn’t spotted the unusually high level of mathematical content, the result of several of the writers having maths, science or computer science backgrounds. Sometimes it manifests in just a passing reference – perhaps the title of a book glimpsed for a second, or something written on a blackboard in the background. At others the maths is central to the storyline.
In some ways, what should be a ‘best of both worlds’ crossover book that appeals to both Simpsons fans and maths nerds (publishers love crossover books) is in danger of being the opposite kind of product (I mean product in a mathematical sense – how else?), by being a book that only appeals to maths nerds who are also fans of the Simpsons. As I almost qualify for this, I was going to enjoy reading it anyway, but what saved it from being the mathematical equivalent of trainspotting (‘Did you know that in episode #382, the number 47 is referred to ironically as a square, even though everyone knows it isn’t, fnaar, fnaar!’*) was Singh’s indubitable writing skill and ability to bring in interesting asides and deviations.
Popular maths will always have a smaller audience than popular science for good reason, but if you have only the smallest interest in maths and some enjoyment of either the Simpsons or Futurama you should find this an excellent entertainment, and certainly a revelation when it comes to the lengths that the writers will go to get some little mathematical reference in.
* This isn’t a real example, but the sort of thing I mean
The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.
Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.
This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.
Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.
In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…
There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).
It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…