Birthday Book Review: The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets
Posted by joeabbott on November 4, 2015
I recently posted the short review of a book I received for my 50th birthday … an event that’s just about exactly two years old at this writing. Well, I also completed another book (I had a couple going simultaneously) and, upon checking the cover inscription, I see: Intriguing! Happy 51st, Joe. Momma. Yup, another birthday, another book from my mother, and another quick review.
The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets caught my attention as it fit a couple criteria I have for what I believe will be an enjoyable read: based on science, fun with pop culture, and written by Simon Singh. A while ago I read Singh’s The Code Book and did something that’s not typical for me: I read it a second time. And that time I wrote code to test out the different algorithms. It was captivating stuff.
I then read Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem and Big Bang and found I enjoyed those nearly as much. I can’t put a finger on the exact quality, but it’s a lucid writing that’s easily read and, even when imparting a complex thought, he does it with an easily understood language, a simplicity of structure, and clear description. All aspects that I find quite challenging. It’s just really good stuff.
At the end of his third book I thought I’d read somewhere that he hadn’t planned on writing anything else. I was disappointed but his point was: he’d set out to see if he could write a well-received book, he had, and there were other challenges to face. I respected that. But there it was, another book by the very-same Simon Singh, so onto my “wish list” it went.
It took a while to find the right time and place for this book. If it was like any of the other Singh books, it’d be a page turner, and so I brought it along on my annual hike with my old Boeing friends. These trips are part “get out there”, part “enjoy some downtime”, and part “catch up with old chums” … and we all bring a good book for those lazy afternoons where silence is as welcome as each others’ company. But a strange thing happened: I didn’t finish the book.
At over 200 pages it’s not a slim volume but neither a tome. The material wasn’t challenging but it just never grabbed me; never pulled me in. I always found it somewhat easy to put down and find something else to occupy myself with while the others were reading. The book isn’t a disappointment, but it stands apart from the Singh canon that I can’t put down.
The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets
The book is some 17 chapters with 14 dedicated to one of The Simpson animated television show, three dedicated to a sister show, Futurama, and a “Chapter 0” to explain the premise. You see, many of the writers on the Simpson’s (and Futurama) program have backgrounds in mathematics and science. With their geeky love of numbers and fun with words, the writers have imbued many episodes of both The Simpsons and Futurama with complex mathematical topics, scientific conundrums, and various other aspects related to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum.
In some cases it may be as simple as having the number representing Pi as a date, an obscure reference to a number with scientific significance in the background (look up 1729 in the book or on wikipedia), or even posing situations for which the writers created a unique theorem as proof!
All of the stories and episodes detailed were engaging and entertaining, but I just lost interest after a bunch of chapters knowing the next chapter was: yet another instance of numbers, math, and science being aspects in a television show program! Novelty, zing, any gotchas … it lost its punch and impact and fell into the bucket of “here’s another story”.
When I got home from the hike I was just over halfway through the book and had set it by my nightstand … and it sat there, slowly losing ground to woodworking catalogs, my Spider-man monthly comic, other books, and a new periodical I just picked up (JLC – Journal of Light Construction … part geek, part nerd, and part guy-who-can-build-stuff). When I finished You are Now Less Dumb, I did a bit of housecleaning, found the Simpson’s book, and finished it up in a few nights.
Nope, didn’t catch fire this time, either… I didn’t find anything new with the reunion; just a book I finished.
I feel badly for not being more ebullient about The Simpson’s and Their Mathematical Secrets because it’s a fine book. Singh writes with his usual lucidity, The Simpsons show is fun to showcase math with, and the behind the scenes stories are neat. But, it loses something in 17 different chapters essentially telling the same story.
I guess I’m not math nerd enough.
If you’re looking for a well-written book and your interests fall on the cross section of animated pop television and math, this may be exactly the thing for you. And if you’re a Simpsons fan, looking for every secret and behind the scenes story, it’s right up your ally. However, unless you’re a mathematician who can truly appreciate the difference between the many technical topics shared, it’ll likely be a book you enjoy and get through … but have a hard time (like me) recommending with vigor.