After researching Simon Singh’s background in preparation for this interview, I’m quite nervous at taking such a high profile figure for my first interview. The science author, whose works include Fermat’s Last Theorem, Big Bang, and The Code Book, also holds a PhD in Particle Physics, as well as an honorary Doctor of Science degree from UEA. After finishing introductions, and getting my nerves and words under control, we begin discussing the topic of his latest book; The Simpsons?
Simon admits he was surprised himself when he first found complex mathematics in The Simpsons. “I was just watching an episode one day, I think it was ‘The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace’, I saw a reference to Fermat’s Last Theorem”. This mathematical quandary was first posed by 17th century Frenchman Pierre de Fermat, and states that in the equation, an+ bn = cn, if the value of n is higher than 2, there is no way the equation can work to solve for c. This hypothesis proved so difficult it was only solved in 1995, more than 350 years after it was first conjectured. So Simon was perhaps understandably taken aback to find it referred to in a cartoon. “It just hit me straight between the eyes, most people would probably have ignored it or not understood what it was, but I could actually latch onto it.”
Upon doing a little digging, Simon then found that a remarkable number of the writers for The Simpsons hold degrees in mathematics. Five writers hold Bachelor of Science degrees from Harvard University, and some, like Ken Keeler, even hold PhD’s in Applied Mathematics. Prompted by this, Simon realised that they had managed to add some very complex maths into intellectual in-jokes throughout the 25 seasons of The Simpsons, and even used the show to put forward their own propositions to unsolved problems.
It is a tribute to Simon’s skill in communicating obscure science to a wider audience that he is able to give this biology student a very quick yet accurate grounding in computer mathematics as he tells me of this next intricate formula. P vs. NP is the question of whether there is any link between easy problems (P) and hard problems (NP), and if so could it one day help us solve the hard ones as quickly as the easy? Or not? This is so mind-bending that there is still a standing million dollar prize for anyone who can unravel it, and yet it appears in not one but two of Matt Groening’s creations, The Simpsons and Futurama, which is looked at in the second half of Simon’s book.
“In ‘Tree House of Horror IV’, David Cohen includes the equation P=NP, so he suggests that one day the hard problems will be like the easy problems. But in the Futurama episode, ‘Put Your Head on My Shoulders’, in a stationary cupboard there are two folders on the shelves, one was marked P and the other marked NP, and what Ken Keeler is suggesting there is that the hard problems and the easy problems will always remain fundamentally different.”
Simon says that people assume that in writing about mathematics in The Simpsons, he’s been trawling for the slightest meaning in the tiniest of lines, but that this certainly wasn’t the case. “What you have there is not only a reference to an unsolved problem in mathematics, but you also have two different writers in two different series giving their views as to whether P equals NP, or whether P does not equal NP, and that’s a quite sophisticated discussion to be having in a cartoon series.”
Considering these writers went from graduating with maths based degrees from university, and ended up working on one of the best known television series of all time, did Simon ever have a set idea of the career he wanted to follow? “I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, so I never really expected to go into television until towards the end of my PhD. When I was working in TV I never thought I’d become a writer, and when I’ve been a writer I never thought I’d be part of a campaign that would help change the libel laws.”
Simon was part of a high profile libel case against the British Chiropractic Association after stating quite accurately that there’s no evidence chiropractic can be used to treat infant colic or earache, where he gained huge support from the online and scientific community. When asked what he thinks the biggest barrier is between science and the general public, he responds that it’s more a case of finding the right medium. “I think almost anybody, between primary school kids through to university graduates, anybody can improve their knowledge and their understanding of science, it’s just about finding the right group, the right speaker, the right lecture or the right book, to start off where you are now, and then take you to where you want to go.”
It’s in this vein that Simon says he writes a lot of his books, aiming to appeal to those who are interested in finding out more on a given subject. With having found so much information to use from The Simpsons, he hopes that the popular show will help encourage people who are curious about maths, “People who are just looking for a way into learning about mathematics, because they’ve got Homer and Lisa holding their hand as they go through the book.”
Simon Singh will be talking about The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets at Epic Studios, Norwich, on 3 December. More information at norwich.skepticsinthepub.com.