Monday, September 22, 2014

Book review: "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets"

I haven't watched "The Simpsons" in about 12 or 15 years, but Simon Singh's The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets is a book that really tickles my fancy despite my having thrown my lot in with the dark side (i.e., law) after my earlier days as a math/science nerd.

I didn't realize that the show has been chock full of so many math puns and jokes, some of which are readily apparent with no special math skills required, and others that take advantage of, say, differential calculus or number theory.

I especially liked the discussion of how one of the writers used a computer to find a set of numbers that seemingly disproved Fermat's Last Theorem, which posits that there is no number n > 2 for which the equation:

x^n + y^n = z^n

where x, y, and z are integers. It's a theorem that some people thought would last the test of time; there's an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" where Captain Picard is, in his spare time, trying to prove it in the 24th century. Actually, though, it was proven in 1995 by Andrew Wiles, a feat that author Singh wrote about in another book.

Anyway, the Simpsons writer found a set of numbers x, y, and z, which seemed to satisfy the theorem with n = 12. At least, it did if you used a basic calculator that displayed only a few decimal points of precision. If you used a computer, you'd see that it didn't satisfy the equation perfectly.

How neat! And all that work for something that shows up on a chalkboard in the background!

The book contains five sections with math jokes, and I'm pleased to report that I've gotten the humor in all of them so far (I'm about halfway through the book), thus providing some evidence that I haven't completely lost my math/science credentials despite having been in the law school ivory tower for over a decade now.

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