|In this segment from an episode of "The Simpsons" cartoon, Homer finds a
portal to the third dimension while trying to hide from his
sisters-in-law. This is a joke on the fact that they are usually only
2-dimensional and a parody of many science fiction stories about people
travelling to 4-dimensional universes (or 2-dimensional "flatlands".)
Floating around in the computer generated 3-dimensional space are lots of
mathematical references and in-jokes. For instance:
Of course the best part of the episode isn't mathematical. In the end,
Homer falls through the black hole and ends up in our world. A must
- The formula 178212 + 184112 = 192212,
which is not true. (If it were, it would be a counter-example to Fermat's
- The formula P=NP, which may or may not be true...if you can prove it
one way or another you'd be famous! This is a question from an area of
mathematics called combinatorics and also of great importance to computer
scientists. Basically, if this statement is true then it means that a lot
of questions people try to answer using computers will be able to be
computed in a reasonable amount of time. If it is false (which it might as
well be for now since we don't know how to do it anyway) then there is no
way to answer these questions using a standard digital computer in a short
enough time to make it useful.
- The formula epi i=-1, which is most definitely true. It is
a very sweet relationshp between three "strange" mathematical constants
(the number e which is identified by the property d/dx(ex)=ex, the number
i which is the square root of negative one and the number pi which is the
ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter).
- There are several references to cosmology and general relativity. An
inequality for the density of an open universe appears. More
transparently, the surface on which he is standing is a two dimensional
representation of a black hole as it is often drawn by scientists.
Finally, Homer mentions that he should have "read that book by that
wheelchair guy" (Stephen Hawking).
- The three dimensional space is equipped with "coordinate axes" in the
form of three poles labeled "x", "y" and "z".
- The nerdy science guy explains that this should all be obvious to
anyone with "a Ph.D. in hyperbolic topology". (I'm not sure this makes
sense. I believe "hyperbolic" is a geometric term that has no topological
meaning...but I'm not absolutely positive about this.)
- In the credits, David S. Cohen's name appears under a radical (square
There is actually a lot of mathematics on the Simpsons. Check out the website at simpsonsmath.com which is devoted to tracking these "in jokes". Note also that the Matt Groening science fiction cartoon Futurama also frequently includes mathematical references.
Ok, so the math is limited to in-jokes, but I bet this episode was the first time in Television History there was a reference to NP completeness in prime time. Etc. My mouth was literally agape.
A much more obscure mathematical gag in a Futurama episode featured "Witten's Dog". Nice to see some mathjokes in the media!
The funny point about the FLT "counterexample" that appears in this episode is that in fact it seems true if we do the calculations with a system with few precision digits, like a hand calculator.
This fact by itself (and its near-subliminal appearance, "see-it-if-you-are-fast-enough") makes the whole episode to be worth a 5
I took your Math in Fiction class Spring of 2005 and my mother still sends me emails whenever she sees a new book/movie/etc dealing with math in fiction. When I started your class and explained the idea to her, she paused and said, "I just read a book where this young girl saves everyone by knowing this special number. Do you know it?" I asked her what it was and she starting saying, " 1, 1, 2, 3..." And I picked up with "5, 8, 13..." She flipped out. Haha. But then I explained the Fibonacci sequence and she's been hooked ever since.
Anyways she saw this new book advertised and I checked your website and didn't see anything on it. I thought it was pretty cool so I wanted to send you an email about it:
The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh.