Simon Singh

This article is a preview from the Winter 2013 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been watching The Simpsons for the best part of 25 years, and not once have I noticed that the animated sitcom is littered with jokes about maths. I’ve never struggled with the political gags – Homer brawling in the street with George Bush Sr being one scene that stands out in my memory – and it would be pretty hard to miss the religious references in a show in which God himself has popped up from time to time, but I have to admit that the references to mathematics have passed me by.

Thankfully one of our best popularisers of science is on hand to set me straight. Having grappled with the unsolvable in Fermat’s Last Theorem, tangled with our origins in Big Bang and practically traded blows with the quacks in Trick or Treatment (more on that later), Simon Singh is revealing the links between his chosen subject and his favourite TV show in his new book The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.

As Singh explains in his book, a closer look at The Simpsons reveals that references to mathematics have popped up frequently throughout its 23-year history. Watch the 2004 episode “Simple Simpson” and you’ll spot a pun about Pi. Travel back into deepest Simpsons history to 1990’s “Dead Putting Society” and you’ll witness Ned Flanders out-argue Homer by invoking infinity plus one. Return to more recent times with “Marge and Homer Turn a Couple Play” (2006) and careful examination of the big screen in Springfield baseball stadium will reveal a Mersenne prime number (8,191), a perfect number (8,128) and a narcissistic number (8,208). These are just a tiny selection of The Simpsons’ maths references – pick up Singh’s book and you can read about many, many more, and in much greater detail than I, as a humanities student, am capable of conveying.

When I meet Singh at a café near London’s Waterloo station to discuss the new book, I begin by asking when he first noticed the maths that pervades the show. “I think I noticed it first when I spotted Fermat’s last theorem, which is the subject of my first book, and thought, ‘Well, that’s odd,’” he says. “And then I started thinking, who’s behind these episodes, who’s coming up with these ideas?”

The answer, it transpires, is that The Simpsons’ writing team contains some serious mathematical talent. In the introduction to his book Singh lists the five nerdiest writers – J Stewart Burns, David S Cohen, Al Jean, Ken Keeler and Jeff Westbrook. All of them have degrees in maths or computer science from Ivy League universities and two of them – Keeler and Westbrook – have PhDs. These are people who really know their numbers, and it explains why the content of The Simpsons goes far beyond a few simple mathematical in-jokes.

“We’re not just talking about a couple of jokes,” says Singh, who spent time with the show’s writing team in LA while researching the book. “There are dozens of sometimes quite esoteric references to mathematics.” I ask him to tell me about his favourite, which comes from the 1989 episode “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace”. “Homer finds a solution to Fermat’s last theorem, and the thing about Fermat’s last theorem is that it shouldn’t have any solutions. So Homer has discovered something that shouldn’t be possible.”

The startling thing about this joke is just how much maths you would need to know just to be able to get it. “You’ve got to recognise that it’s Fermat’s last theorem, you’ve got to know that it shouldn’t have any solutions, you’ve got to spot that Homer’s found a solution, and you’ve got to figure out why he’s got this solution that shouldn’t exist. And what it is, if you very carefully calculate it, there’s a very, very slight discrepancy in the equation. So there’s a huge amount of maths there.”

Having struggled to maintain an interest in maths in my own schooldays, I can’t help thinking that things could have been different with a little help from America’s first family. Could The Simpsons be put to work with the aim of boosting our national numeracy skills? Singh has been trying out some Simpsons-based maths lessons at Heathlands School in west London, and is aiming to make his lesson plans available to teachers online in the coming months. Yet while debate about educational standards often focuses on improving basic levels of numeracy and literacy, Singh says he is personally more interested in addressing failings at the higher levels. “When it comes to getting kids interested in maths, I think we’re probably doing better than we used to,” he says. “What I get frustrated about are the kids that are talented, because the curriculum just doesn’t stretch them, and there aren’t enough maths teachers out there to stretch the students. The entire system seems to be watered down and geared to the middle.”

It’s a problem, he says, that extends to the sciences – in particular his own discipline of physics. “Some schools tend not to offer triple sciences, and you’ve got to do triple sciences to have a good springboard for A Level physics. No one has addressed the issue of teaching real maths and real physics to those kids who could potentially become young mathematicians, young physicists, young inventors, young engineers and so on.”

Does he think this leaves the UK lagging behind other countries? “I think the real difference is with a place like India. I’ve been to schools there and for them mathematics is an opportunity to not only improve their own lives but to improve the lives of their family, their community, their nation. There are some fantastic statistics about the number of science and maths graduates coming out of India, compared with Europe. In Britain and the whole Western world in general, we take science and maths for granted.”

Listening to Singh speak with such enthusiasm, I can’t help thinking that it’s nice for him to be able to turn his attention to something positive. He had planned to write his Simpsons book in 2005, but switched focus to alternative medicine after watching a BBC documentary on acupuncture, which he says made him “very angry”. The resulting book, Trick or Treatment, co-authored with Professor Edzard Ernst, was a vital debunking of the quack science that pervades our culture, but the subject cost Singh the next few years of his life, as the British Chiropractic Association sued him for libel over his assertion in a Guardian column that it “happily promotes bogus treatments”. The case derailed his writing career, but was won in 2010 after becoming a cause célèbre for scientific scepticism and UK libel reform.

Was Singh surprised by the level of support he received? “It was extraordinary,” he says. “I’m not a very emotional man, but some of the emails I got really gave me the strength to carry on. And it was a really important part of the case. Skeptics and bloggers were out there analysing the evidence. My legal team and I were always up to speed on the latest situation, because bloggers and skeptics were out there supporting us.”

Singh’s case gave rise to a major campaign for reform of libel law in England and Wales, under which wealthy complainants have long held the advantage. By April 2013 the campaign had led to the passage of the new Defamation Act, which, once it comes into force in 2014, will require claimants to demonstrate actual or probable serious harm before suing for defamation. I ask Singh whether he thinks the new law goes far enough. “It could always have been better,” he says. “But when the campaign started four years ago I don’t think we ever would have dreamed of getting this far. It’s just extraordinary. We now have a clause that says that if you have a peer-reviewed article it’s going to be really hard to sue you for libel. When my case was going on, Nature [the science journal] were being sued for libel, and I was hearing from academics who were being sued for libel, and from journals that were withdrawing papers. That should not happen as of next year.”

On top of the Defamation Act, one of the impacts of Singh’s legal battle was its contribution to the growth of a global Skeptics movement (adherents always spell it with a “k”!) under whose banner scientifically-minded activists rally both online and in person to fight abuses of science. After the events of the last five years, Singh might be forgiven for taking a back seat in the war on pseudoscience, but it’s clear from my chat with him that he has no such intentions. He recently helped to establish the Good Thinking Society, which will work to raise awareness and fund sceptical projects. I ask why the issue bothers him so much – isn’t a lot of quackery harmless?

“I don’t think any of it is harmless,” he argues. “It all feeds into each other. The parents who don’t vaccinate their children will often be the same people who buy into the idea of alternative is good and mainstream is bad, natural is good and man-made is bad. So somebody has a cold, and they go to see a homeopath, or they try a homeopathic remedy from Boots, and their cold gets better, because colds always get better, and they attribute it to homeopathy. Then the next time they see the homeopath, the homeopath says, ‘Oh, you’ve got a baby, have you considered homeopathic vaccinations?’ It’s about protecting people and giving them the right information.”

Singh also takes an interest in climate change, particularly the attempts by some media commentators to play down or deny the risks. With the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivering its firmest verdict yet on the link between human activity and climate change, I ask Singh how he feels about our collective failure to take the issue seriously. “When we look at the experts on climate every single one of them says it’s happening, it’s man-made, and we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t do something. The only way you can take a contrary position is if you’re a top climate scientist and you can back it up with evidence. When it’s an MP, or a newspaper columnist, or a random blogger, it’s baffling.”

So does he think there’s any hope for the future? “Maybe the only way we’ll learn is in the next 10-15 years, when temperatures go up, and we suddenly realise that we are digging ourselves into a hole. Sooner or later we are going to realise it, but the longer we wait the harder the fix will be. As teachers always used to say, experience is a hard school, but fools will learn in no other. Maybe that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Which brings us neatly back to education, and the failure to produce top young scientists that Singh talks so passionately about. With a little more support for our high-achieving maths and science students, perhaps we can produce the experts we’re going to need to get us out of this mess. And if you’re a parent who’s wondering what you can do to help, you could do worse than sit your kids down in front of an episode of The Simpsons.

Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets is published by Bloomsbury