Futurama Math
Text Transcript of Futurama Math talk at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Phoenix, AZ,
Friday, January 9, 2004, 10:45-10:55am
Speaker: Sarah J. Greenwald

Slide 1

Thank you. My name is Sarah Greenwald and I'm a professor in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. Futurama is a rare exception in broadcast tv - a satirical science fiction cartoon that aims its jokes squarely at the top of the brow, yet allows those brainy zingers to thrive among gags that fall further below.

Futurama, which aired on Fox, follows the exploits of Fry, who accidentally fell into a cryogenic chamber and awoke 1000 years later, in the year 3000.

Futurama is especially fun to watch, because math, science or programming references seem to appear in almost every episode.

For those of you who are familiar with my work on Simpsons math, you might begin to get the idea that I watch a lot of Fox tv. While this is true, the motivation for this talk today came from Art Benjamin, one of the incoming editors of Math Horizons. He had seen the Simpsons math article and approached me about writing additional pop culture articles. Since I was a casual viewer of Futurama, I contacted some expert fans for help. My co-authors are Tom Georgoulias, who has a degree in chemical engineering from NC State, and Marc Wichterich, who is working on his Diplom in cs at RWTH Aachen University, in Germany. While we are discussing degrees, I should mention that my PhD is from the University of Pennsylvania. Our Math Horizons Futurama article is expected to appear in April [This did appear in April 2004]. And if you're interested in writing a pop culture article for Horizons please do contact Art.

Slide 2

Some of the math references in Futurama go by very quickly, such as in the episode "Put your Head on my Shoulder" written by Ken Keeler. Fry's life is saved when his head is grafted onto soon to become ex-girlfriend Amy. In the background, a book labeled as P is sitting next to a book labeled as NP.

Cook and Levin formulated the P = NP problem independently in 1971. If P = NP, then every problem that can be checked with a nondeterministic algorithm can also be solved through one we can actually implement. Thus scientists have been looking for either a problem that is in NP but not in P or a proof that there is no such problem. A 1 million dollar prize has been offered to anyone who can prove whether or not P equals NP. If we had the books from Futurama that supposedly list the problems in each class, then we could compare them, see of the NP book lists any extra ones, and collect our prize money.

Slide 3

Ken Keeler has a PhD in applied math from Harvard. His doctoral thesis was on Map Representations and Optimal Encoding for Image Segmentation. When he was finishing up there were very few jobs, so he applied to both academic and tv writing jobs. After a year at Bell labs, he decided to try tv writing. In a gotfuturama.com interview, Marc asked about his many years at school and Ken Keeler joked that a Futurama reference to 1729 was worth 6 years of grad school.

Slide 4

Keeler refers to the episode "Xmas Story" written by David Cohen in which robot friend Bender receives a card from the machine that built him wishing "Son #1729" a Merry Christmas.

The number 1729 is sometimes referred to as the "Ramanujan-Hardy" number. One day Hardy took a cab to visit Ramanujan and commented that his taxicab number, 1729, was dull. Ramanujan quickly replied that 1729 was in fact a very interesting number since it is the smallest number that can be written as the sum of two cubes in two different ways, as 9^3 + 10^3 and 1^3 + 12^3.

Slide 5

The number 1729 also appears in many episodes of Futurama on the hull of the space ship called the Nimbus

Slide 6

and as the reference number of the universe populated by "bobble head" characters in the episode "The Farnsworth Parabox."

Slide 7

In an interview with Tom for frontwheeldrive.com, Executive Producer and head writer David Cohen said that they try to put in as much science as possible with the hope of making die-hard fans out of those that appreciate it. David Cohen has a bachelor's in physics from Harvard and a master's in computer science from Berkeley. He co-wrote a paper on the problem of sorting burnt pancakes, which appeared in discrete applications of math.

Slide 8

The sum of two cubes comes up again in the episode "a Lesser of Two Evils." You'll see this joke and then you'll hear first Matt Groening and then David Cohen talk about it.

If you were listening carefully, David Cohen actually gave a hint to help you with the calculations. I'll leave that as a challenge problem.

David Cohen also mentioned Jeff Westbrook, who received his PhD in computer science from Princeton. His doctoral thesis was on Algorithms and Data Structures for Dynamic Graphs. He was a professor at Yale and also worked at AT&T labs before writing for Futurama. He and Ken Keeler also published an article in discrete applications.

There is another mathematician on staff. Steward Burns has a bachelor's in math from Harvard. His senior thesis was on the structure of group algebras and he has a master's in math from Berkeley.

Slide 9

In this episode written by Burns, Fry is confronted with the fact that even though he briefly attended college in the 20th century, this is only the equivalent of being a high school dropout by 30th century academic standards. In the hopes of becoming a Mars University dropout, he begins enrolling in some courses.

Later on Professor Farnsworth is seen teaching to an empty room as Fry arrives late to class.

Slide 10

Supersymmetric string theory is a branch of mathematical physics but the duper is listed for comic effect. Ed Witten is famous for his discoveries in mathematics using observations from physics. He even won mathematics highest award, the Fields medal. The diagram of the dog is similar to a string scattering diagram, a string theory analogue of a Feynman diagram, representing particles combining or decaying. However, instead of the dog-shaped diagram in the picture, string theorists typically look at diagrams that resemble a pair of pants, or two pairs of pants sewn together at the waist. "Witten's Dog" is a parady of "Schroedinger's Cat," a famous paradox in quantum physics.

Fry is clearly in over his head and is certainly on his way to achieving his goal of becoming a college dropout.

Slide 11

Here's an amusing reference to Escher's 1953 Relativity when Fry and Bender look for an apartment.

Thanks to the cleverness and mathematical backgrounds of these writers, Futurama can be especially fun to watch. And David Cohen was correct in my case. Researching math in Futurama did make a die-hard fan out of me.

But, if you think the fun is over and we've revealed all the clever jokes Futurama has, think again. It is left as an exercise for you to tune into the show and find others. Sadly, Fox has decided not to order any new episodes. This leaves fans with the option of enjoying the show through the DVD boxed sets or watching re-runs on the Cartoon Network Monday through Thursday at 11pm or 2am. Those viewers who do take the time to tune in will find their brains and funny bones richly rewarded.

Thank you.

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