I was very excited when David X. Cohen invited me to speak to his math club:
Of course I said yes! Since the shows contain
hundreds of mathematical references ranging
from arithmetic and number
theory to geometry, calculus, and beyond, I knew that I wouldn't be able
to cover them all, but I planned on exploring how my favorites
can enhance the teaching of mathematics.
It was perfect timing to
emphasize references from the shows related to April 2005 Mathematics
Awareness Month on the Mathematics of the Cosmos, and
I suggested that people bring a globe of the earth and a calculator to play
along.
For more information, check out
simpsonsmath.com,
Futurama πk - Mathematics in the
Year 3000,
A Futurama
Math Conversation with David X Cohen,
and mathaware.org.
Mathematics on The Simpsons with Andrew Nestler, Santa Monica College
Mathematics on Futurama with Tom Georgoulias, Raleigh, NC, and
Marc Wichterich, RWTH Aachen University, Germany
Unfortunately, Marc and Tom could not attend, but Andrew joined
me as a fellow speaker.
Around thirty-five
people attended, including the following people involved with
The Simpsons or Futurama:
J. Stewart Burns,
David X. Cohen,
Dan Greaney,
Matt Groening,
Ken Keeler,
George Meyer,
Max Pross,
Mike Reiss,
Patric Verrone,
Dan Vebber,
Jon Vitti,
Matt Warburton,
Ron Weiner, and
Jeff Westbrook.
It was great to meet and chat with them both before and after the
talk and learn about the stories behind some of the mathematical moments.
For example, Mike Reiss told us that when the Simpsons
writers asked NASA for the 40,000th
digit of π, NASA actually sent them a printout of all 40,000 digits.
Matt Groening said that they'll have to put in more math references, and
of course we agreed.
During a discussion
about Fry's DNA,
I was told that this is just what it
was like to work on Futurama to which I replied - "sounds
great!" We also chatted about Lawrence Summers comments on
women in science; they are working on a related
Simpsons episode.
Giving the talk was surreal. In the introduction,
I thanked David X. Cohen for making the arrangements and those who were
responsible for so many great math moments in the show. Then I
explained that Andrew and I weren't talking about a course on math in
The Simpsons and Futurama and that popular culture references
are just one of the ways I help my students connect to course
material (incorporating history, real-world applications, technology, and
visualization are some of the others). I discussed the fact that
capitalizing on student enjoyment of popular culture can alleviate
math anxiety, energize shy and quiet students, and provide a
creative introduction to an in-depth study of the related mathematics.
I explained that we were going to look at questions related to clips,
and examine how we've used them in our classrooms, how our students
have responded, and also explore current related mathematics.
We encouraged the audience to share comments, explained that
we would sometimes ask them questions as if they were our students
to give them a sense of what that's like, and that small prizes
would be available at the end to encourage participation.
Andrew did a wonderful job starting us off on questions about the
Pythagorean Theorem in The Simpsons and information about
how he uses these in the classroom.
I then discussed how well my students respond to
Futurama and The Simpsons
classroom activities on the
geometry of the universe. In the process, we
talked about Mathematics Awareness Month,
mathematical conjectures about hyperbolic and spherical manifolds and
orbifolds, and updates from NASA and Jeff Weeks about the geometry of the
universe. Audience members asked a lot of great questions.
Next we explored a classroom worksheet
on the power of twelve equations
in The Simpsons
and connections to
Fermat near-misses
and problems in algebraic number theory.
David X. Cohen explained
that he had specifically
looked for these examples via a
computer program he created. I then handed out a
Futurama worksheet on the
sum of two cubes and discussed
recent related results. Andrew
talked about the
40,000th digit of π in The Simpsons and open normality
questions.
We were very happy with audience participation and the
level of engagement with the mathematics throughout the talk.
Their intelligent answers,
amusing discussions, great stories,
and insightful and thought-provoking questions and comments
made the talk really fun for us,
but of course this meant that we ran out of time quickly
and were not able to discuss more
mathematical references from the shows.
I concluded by explaining that my linear algebra students
would love to watch clips from The Simpsons or Futurama,
but we only use pop culture references in those classes where it relates
to the material we would have covered anyway. I mentioned that
while we would love to see many more math references
for years to come, really I wanted to thank them for making it easier
for my students to connect to mathematics.
Mathematics Awareness Month
posters were handed out courtesy of the
Joint Policy Board
for Mathematics.
We enjoyed chatting with everyone after the talk
and I was thrilled to have my
Lisa poster autographed. We also received really nice feedback.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this a great night!
Dr. Sarah J. Greenwald,
Appalachian State University
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