Interview: Simon Singh


As readers may be aware we recently reviewed a talk given by Simon Singh in Belfast regarding his book The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.  He has kindly taken time out from his busy book tour and answered some questions in light of this talk:-

Q: What other theories (mathematical or otherwise) would you love to see referenced within The Simpsons that, to your knowledge, have yet to appear?

A: I was surprised that there is no reference to Fibonacci numbers throughout The Simpsons.  I specifically asked the writers, and I think that they were a bit surprised themselves that these numbers had been overlooked.  The Fibonacci series is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 … so I am adding each pair of numbers to get the next one … 13, 21, 34, 55, 84, and so on.  What’s lovely about Fibonacci numbers is that they show up in many places in nature, for example in the number of petals in particular flowers – 3 petals in a lily, 5 petals in a buttercup, 8 petals in a delphinium, up to 34 petals in plantain flowers, or 55 petals in the Michaelmas daisy.  So it would not be too hard to smuggle a Fibonacci number or series into a storyline.  When I interviewed writer Jeff Westbrook, he told me that he would like to include something about Pascal’s Wager in The Simpsons, a nice mix of probability and theology.

Q: Apu is almost stereotyped (highly intelligent, well educated ethnic minority moves to new country and works in a mini mart) – he has quite an interesting background that many people forget.

A: Apu has a mathematical background.  In “Much Apu About Nothing” (1996), he recalls his journey from India to America, Apu tells Marge: “I came here shortly after my graduation from Caltech. Calcutta Technical Institute.  As the top student in my graduating class of seven million.”  We also learn that Apu went to America to study at the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology, which has a rather unfortunate acronym.  Under the supervision of Professor Frink, Apu spent nine years completing his PhD in computer science by supposedly developing the world’s first tic-tac-toe program, which could only be beaten by the best human players.

Q: Being a “geek” or “nerd” has become, for want of a better phrase, fashionable and this is evidenced by popular shows with cerebral backgrounds such as Big Bang Theory, Sherlock, Professor Cox‘s Wonders of… series, etc.  Do you believe this can only be a good thing in showing the general populace that it is not embarrassing to be smart and knowledgable, or could there be a dark side that is not evident to date?

A: The rise of the geeks is a wholly positive phenomenon.  It has always been cool to love literature or music, or be politically aware – and rightly so.  And now it is becoming cool to love science and mathematics too.  In the book, I briefly look at this history of the terms geek and nerd, and how these terms are now embraced.  In 1951, Newsweek reported that nerd was a derogatory term gaining popularity in Detroit.  In the 1960s, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute preferred the spelling knurd, which was drunk spelled backward-the implication being that knurds are the opposite of party animals.  However, with the emergence of nerd pride over the past decade, the term is now embraced by mathematicians and others of their ilk.  Similarly, geek is a label to be admired, as demonstrated by the popularity of geek chic and a headline in Time magazine in 2005: “The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth.

Q: With recent statistics showing that literacy and numeracy skills of young adults in the UK and Ireland trail behind other industrialised countries, do you think your book, or any other that provides an interesting perspective on mathematics, should become part of the national curriculum as required reading?

A: I think The Simpsons could play a role in helping trigger an interest in maths among students who are currently uninterested in the subject.  And it could also further inspire students who are already keen on numbers.  However, this is just a very thin icing on top of a massive cake.  The crucial point is that we we need a higher number of qualified maths teachers and we need a curriculum that is appropriate.  In fact, we need at least two curricula, because we need one that caters for the majority and one that stretches those who have a talent and enthusiasm for mathematics.  In many ways, I am probably more worried about those students who could be excellent at mathematics, but who are not being challenged.  I think we have more to offer today than ever before in terms of money being put into education, additional resources and the wonders of the internet, and yet our best students are achieving less than ever before. I am not an expert, but I have visited at least 200 schools over the last few years and my impression is  that we are failing our best mathematicians.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets is out now.  Isn’t it time to visit your local book shop?

A list of dates for the book tour can be found on Simon Singh’s website:

Finally, a big thank you to Simon Singh for giving Nerdgeist his time despite what one can only assume is a hectic schedule.

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