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How Mathematics Inspired The Writers Of The Simpsons And Futurama

Pete Dickinson, Head of Comms, reflects on a global premiere and the mathematics hidden within the Simpsons and Futurama.

Leading lights of the Simpsons and Futurama, Al Jean and David X. Cohen, served up a sell-out event at the Science Museum that danced effortlessly like a Simpsons episode between scintillating story-telling, one-liners and hard-core mathematics.

QI creator John Lloyd, CEO of Innovate UK Iain Gray, and mathematics populariser Alex Bellos were among those lured to the museum for an evening of maths and mirth, but it was 12-year-old Toby Hawkins whose question precipitated the eveningís global premiere.

Toby wondered whether we could hope for a Simpsons and Futurama crossover episode if anyone should prove that P does not equal NP and thus solve a major unresolved problem in computer science. In response we were treated to the first ever airing of part of a ‘Simpsorama’ crossover show that will see Bender travelling back in time in an attempt to kill Bart so worldwide disaster can be averted.

Al Jean and David X. Cohen discussing maths and The Simpsons at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum
Al Jean and David X. Cohen discussing maths and The Simpsons at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The evening was expertly compered by Simon Singh, author of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets. He invited Al Jean and David X. Cohen to explain how and why they have regularly embellished episodes of both series with references to degree-level maths such as Fermatís Last Theorem or the Taxicab number.

Al Jean, who worked on the first series and is now executive producer of The Simpsons, and studied maths at Harvard, credited serendipity; many of the writers had scientific backgrounds. He went on to suggest that mathematics and comedy writing demand the same kind of thinking and a similar, sometimes obsessive, quest for the perfect solution.

We heard how, in the early 90s, the writers faxed a mathematician working at NASA to ensure the accuracy of a line by store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon when he boasts ‘I can recite pi to forty thousand places. The last digit is 1.’

David X Cohen, creator of Futurama who happens to have a computer science degree from UC Berkeley, hinted at a more serious purpose. Lamenting the way entertainment goes out of its way to make maths seem boring, he said ‘part of what I think about when we do Futurama is let’s make it fun, let’s not make it scary’.

Earlier, Science Museum Deputy Director Jean Franczyk had provided the context for the evening with a reminder of the Science Museumís ambitious plans for a new mathematics gallery, made possible by the generosity of the David and Claudia Harding Foundation. By combining the curation of David Rooney, the creativity of Zaha Hadid Architects and the museum’s beautiful maths collection, Jean predicted a gallery that would delight all, including the ‘intrepid and maths-loving Lisa Simpson’.

The event has inspired a wide range of media interest, on the importance of Lisa as a mathematical role model, the links between mathematics and comedy, along with mentions on Radio 4’s Loose Ends and Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw Show.

All clips from The Simpsons and Futurama were kindly provided by Twentieth Century Fox Television.