This is a still from The Simpsons episode “Mathlete’s Feat.” This is what society thinks of people like me. Not that I’m complaining! I like that the episode makes fun of education fads. At least I think it does. It is hard to tell anymore. The Simpsons has been thoroughly infected by the Family Guy “anything for a joke” philosophy, so the episodes don’t hang together the way they once did. Still, it was nice to see a couple of shots taken at the idea that technology can serve as a substitute for good education. But even with that, it wasn’t a sharp attack — just silly people casting off one orthodoxy for another.
But this image struck me because of the “math joke.” The screen at first showed Homer apparently laughing at the joke. It lasted a long time, I assume to give the audience the chance to “get” the joke. Then it pulled back and we saw that actually Homer was laughing at the dog with a box on its head. Why exactly that is funny, I’m not sure. But roughly the same thing can be said for the math joke.
Of course, the purpose of such “jokes” is not to be funny but to be clever. But there is something very subgenius about the whole thing, if you ask me. The joke here is that the math symbols are supposed to read out, “I ate some pie.” But that doesn’t exactly pop out of it.
When I am confronted with such a thing, I just read it out literally. And frankly, I think that is all that ought to be necessary. But that doesn’t work at all here. I read it as, “Imaginary unit eight summation pi.” And from there I quickly managed “ate some pie.” But even that seemed stupid because I don’t recall ever using the phrase “sum whatever.” I might use “sum of whatever.” Okay: I am a super pedant. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with this. It is vaguely clever, the same way it was when we were kids spelling words with upside down calculators. (That is: not very.)
The question is what one is supposed to make of that square root of negative one. It is the imaginary unit: the most basic imaginary number — beloved by differential equations everywhere. And obviously, yes: the imaginary unit is always referred to as i. To be a pedant, that’s i and not I. But okay. What bothers me is exactly what would bother Bill Clinton: what the definition of is is. Note that “two cubed” and “sigma pi” are puns — they depend upon the sound of what they are. The “square root of negative one” is not i; it is represented by i.
But even if we grant that this is a joke, ultimately, it isn’t a math joke. It’s just a joke that only people with a little mathematical education will be able to get. A joke in the Greek language is not necessarily a “Greek joke.” A math joke is something that deals with, well, math. For example, here’s a joke that people loved in graduate school but always seemed pretty dumb to me:
I think I take a certain personal affront to this “math joke” on The Simpsons because the real object of the joke is nerds themselves. This has always been my problem with the television show The Big Bang Theory. So what you have is a joke that is funny because there are these weird people out there who supposedly find it funny. And actually, there aren’t. “I ate some pie” is funny in the same way as this riddle I learned in the second grade. Question: what state is round on the edges and high in the middle? Answer: Ohio! It’s funny because… Actually, it wasn’t even funny in second grade.
This article was always meant to be lighthearted. Calling myself a pedant twice would be a clear giveaway to me. But as a writer/editor, I know that most people read very inaccurately. It makes my profession very hard because I know the things I struggle with the most are lost on 90 percent of the readers. But there is a serious side to this, and it is not that The Big Bang Theory sucks.
This article is fundamentally about the difference between math and its representation. There is a similar problem in physics where people mistake quantum mechanics for reality. It is a model of reality. It predicts reality really well — but not perfectly. And reality is not running equations to figure out what it ought to do when you drop a ball on the surface of the Earth.
Or look at the Rene Magritte painting, La Trahison des Images (“The Treachery of Images”):
At the bottom of the painting, Magritte has written, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. (“This is not a pipe.”)
Many people think the painting is a joke. But Magritte was quite serious. It is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe. I really like Magritte’s work, but I’ve never been fond of this one because it is such making such an obvious point (even though it is not obvious to many people) in such a bunt way. But it does sum up his career. He said similar things in much more beautiful and subtle ways.
This may all sound very abstract (You know: like mathematics!) but it’s important because people confuse these things all the time. And it’s an ontological issue. Mathematicians design symbols so that they can communicate with each other. But the math is not the equations any more than Magritte’s painting is a pipe. And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand math or much of anything important.
See also: Why I Don’t Like The Big Bang Theory.