Science books

Math nerd writers of 'Simpsons' sneak equations into program

Washington PostJanuary 5, 2014 

TV Fox The Simpsons

Many writers for “The Simpsons” have been serious geeks who add insider math tweaks to the episodes.

ANONYMOUS — AP FILE PHOTO

Bet you didn’t know this about “The Simpsons”: Many of its writers have been serious math geeks. In his new book, “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, math and science writer Simon Singh points to the nerdiest: David X. Cohen, J. Stewart Burns, Al Jean, Ken Keeler and Jeff Westbrook, who all have bachelor’s degrees in mathematics or physics from Harvard. Four of the five have related graduate degrees from Harvard, Princeton or Berkeley.

Singh takes great delight in showing how the writers have been smuggling math into the program since the very first episode, “Bart the Genius.” Sent to a school for gifted children, Bart is faced with a bewildering problem that begins with “y equals r cubed over 3” and ends with the answer “r dr r” – which the class of nerds thinks is hilarious, because if read aloud, the answer sounds like “har-de-har-har.” Never mind, Singh writes – the point is, the lengthy problem on the blackboard is real calculus. And the math references have continued ever since.

“For more than two decades,” Singh writes, “we have been tricked into watching an animated introduction to everything from calculus to geometry, from pi to game theory, and from infinitesimals to infinity.”

To hear Singh and Cohen talk about the book and the influence of mathematics on comedy, you can listen to a recent podcast of NPR’s “Science Friday” at http://bit.ly/1bQD2n8. Nancy Szokan

Astrophysics

Teaching young kids about challenging science concepts such as quasars and supermassive black holes can be, well, challenging. Physicist Dominic Walliman and illustrator Ben Newman have figured out a way to make this task easier – even fun. Their book, “Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space,” offers simple but not dumbed-down explanations of the solar system and how it works. “If the Earth were a cherry tomato, what size would the other planets be?” it asks. Hit the produce aisle and you can re-create Newman’s whimsical illustrations. (Among the items you’ll need are a watermelon and a lime.) If you want to hear the echo of the universe’s beginning, listen to a detuned radio: “One crackle in a hundred is made by leftover light from the Big Bang, stretched over billions of years into radio waves,” the book explains.

Narrated by a cute blue cat named Professor Astro Cat, the book is geared to the 8-to-11-year-old set, but parents may learn a thing or two along the way.

How, for example, is a star born (outside Hollywood)? Hint: It involves hydrogen. Where does the word “galaxy” come from? Skip Wikipedia, and let Professor Astro Cat tell you. Lori Aratani

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