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“Simpsons” Overtakes “Big Bang” in Mathability

Authored By: 
Charlie Sitler, Math Teacher

Of course it caught my eye.  Any headline containing both “The Simpsons” and the phrase “most mathematical” was a slam dunk. And so it was with great interest that I read the article sent to me by Maren from The Irish Examiner detailing the lecture by Professor Simon Singh in which he praised the popular TV show The Simpsons for being "the most mathematical TV show ever".

I myself am a fan of The Simpsons.  Over the years I have bonded with my younger son by watching the couch gags with him, and then hung around to laugh my way through the rest of the episode.  It is my considered opinion that after The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons is probably the funniest scripted comedy show on TV.

But “most mathematical”? Big Bang has Sheldon Cooper front and center, and his tritest remarks would seem to leave Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!” in the dust.  And yet… 

Last December, I was casting about for a new Spring elective at The Beekman School, and I was well aware of how the Simpsons brand might be a useful marketing tool to promote a fledgling course.  For source material, I checked out a new book by the above mentioned Professor Singh entitled The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, a book which ties in quite credible mathematics with their (at times veiled) references on individual Simpsons’ episodes.  As it turns out, while I did not create a course around the entire book, various sections proved very useful in a number of my courses in the Spring 2014 semester.

Early on in the topical math course I taught entitled Math at the Turn Of the Century (MTOC for short), class discussions turned to the topic of prime numbers.  The question of whether the list of primes continued on without end soon came up, and I was able to create a handout based on a section of the Singh book, which not only gave an excellent readable account of Euclid's demonstration that there was no largest prime, but also served as a wonderful example of a proof by contradiction.  I liked the latter aspect so much that I also used the handout in my Geometry class when going over that very method of proof.  I just love it when a particular handout reaches across various different math courses, but things were just getting started.

Time passed, and soon it was March 14: Pi Day!  In addition to having Pi for Everyone, all my classes were treated to a discussion--again from Singh's Simpson book--on how pi was calculated in days of old.  Archimedes’ method of calculating the length of the circumference by the use of inscribed and circumscribed regular polygons, whose number of sides are ever increasing, is described by Singh both in his text and with accompanying diagrams, all—believe it or not!—with reference to various episodes of The Simpsons.  Before you could say “Ay, Caramba!” the lesson, served up appropriately with blueberry pi(e) and coffee ice cream, was a big hit with all my classes that day.

That afternoon our Spring Break began, and Pi Day was so much fun that I took the math crown away from The Big Bang Theory, and handed it to The Simpsons on a TKO.  Oh yes, why did The Big Bang Theory wear the Math Crown up until then?  Primarily on the strength of a drunken Sheldon’s provocative Q and A:  Why did the chicken cross the Mobius Strip?  ….To get to the same side (!)

But that would get us into another blog.  In the meantime, do well on your exams, and have a good vacation!

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