Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

The Simpsons have been around for an amazing 26-season – and counting – run on television. Like others in their 30s, I have fond memories many of its early classic episodes, and even some of the latter ones post-Simpsons movie. I no longer keep up with the latest seasons, but I’m still amazed at how The Simpsons have managed to remain culturally relevant and influential for over a quarter of a century.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets takes a deep dive onto the nerdy roots of many of the storylines, references, and jokes throughout its episodes. It is a companion work with enormous shoes to fill: not only does the source material span over 550 episodes, but its angle around math and science necessitates technical explanations of the subject matter. Indeed, much like The Science of Interstellar, the book spends considerable amounts of ink drawing out complex equations and providing historical and mathematical context for its non-technical audience1.

Thankfully, the author does a good job in detailing out its concepts in an pleasantly approachable fashion. Given how much of the potential audience is wary of math, the book relies more on stories and analogies than numbers and equations, which in fact takes up the majority of the writing. I did find the amount of exposition a tad frustrating, but mainly because I didn’t need the refresher on most of the concepts.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity here is that this treasure trove of insight and research is presented as a published book. As I worked through the chapters, I couldn’t help but think of better ways to present the material: embedded video of the referenced scenes; links to wikipedia articles or Wolfram Alpha equations which could provide even more context or add interactivity; interview sound bites and writer commentary. Since we now have access to all sorts of rich media, it feels so limiting to have everything be reduced to mere words.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets is definitely a nerdy read, albeit one that demands few prerequisites on its readers. It caters to a peculiar cross-section of folks that like both math and the Simpsons, but maybe its point is precisely that their intersection isn’t so rare after all.

  1. For whatever reason, prime numbers have to be explained in detail in every media reference; you’d think people would remember the definition after the fourth or fifth reminder.

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