The script writing team of the hit US cartoon series The Simpsons includes a surprising number of mathematicians; they have degrees, post-graduate degrees and in some cases they have even published original research. Perhaps because of this, they have made it their mission to sneak mathematical jokes into the cartoons; often on the basis that there is no harm adding in extra jokes that only a very small percentage of the population will understand. This can be as simple as choosing three numbers for a display board which, rather than being random numbers, are a Mersenne prime, a perfect number and a narcissistic number.
This book not only exposes the secrets but also goes into the history and the maths behind the numbers and has pages of mathematical jokes. (There is also a section at the back about the maths (and sometimes the physics) of the spin-off animation Futurama; this felt a bit like padding because there is no hint on the front cover or the title page that Singh is going to include another show.)
My favourite mathematical joke from the book: There are 10 types of people in the world; those who understand binary and those who don't.
My favourite fact that I didn't know before: in 1979 an upper limit was calculated for the number of flips you would need in the worst case scenario to make a randomised pile of pancakes into one that was perfectly ordered such that the biggest pancake is on the bottom of the pile. This number was calculated in a paper co-authored by William Gates who went on to found Microsoft.
But then the book made me angry. Why do we live in a society that spurns the beauty of mathematics and assumes mathematicians are weirdos while soccer players are heroes. As Singh points out: Keats claimed that if you "unweave the rainbow" you will somehow destroy its beauty but Feynman replied that a mathematician or a scientist can appreciate the surface beauty of a flower whilst at the same time appreciating the underlying beauty of the biology and the ecology and the biochemistry that makes that flower. So scientists see more beauty than non-scientists.
So I would like to make a start to reclaim poetry for the geeks by proposing that Euler's equation:
has the transcendent beauty equal to (or even transcending) any haiku. The very idea of e or of i are as stunning as a rainbow!
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57