Math-Club, Los Angeles, April 6, 2005
Pythagorean Theorem on the Sphere

Spherical and Hyperbolic Universes

I was very excited when David X. Cohen invited me to speak to his math club: There's a loosely organized "math club" run by a friend of mine here in L.A. that meets occasionally... basically whenever someone volunteers to speak. Usually there are several writers from the Simpsons & Futurama in attendance, and a larger number of other people from a random assortment of professions. We just had a talk tonight, in fact, which is what gave me the idea of checking if you were in the mood to give yet one more talk on your visit to L.A., this one to the math club. It might be bizarre, but interesting, to give a Simpsons/Futurama talk if to an audience stacked with writers from the shows! 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,   Futurama πk - Mathematics in the Year 3000,   A Futurama Math Conversation with David X Cohen, and
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. Hi, Sarah & Andrew! David X. Cohen here.
I just wanted to thank you again for giving the talk -- it was great. Everyone enjoyed the night thoroughly, and only 12% of their enjoyment was due to the free pizza. Just moments ago I started laughing out loud at the very idea that Bender's serial number has become a math assignment. I love it!
Thanks to everyone who helped make this a great night!

Dr. Sarah J. Greenwald, Appalachian State University
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