This Is Not a Math Joke

Math Joke - The Simpsons

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:

A biologist, a chemist, and a statistician are out hunting. The biologist shoots at a deer and misses 5 feet to the left, the chemist takes a shot and misses 5 feet to the right, and the statistician yells, “We got ‘im!”

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”):

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.

29 thoughts on “This Is Not a Math Joke

    • Gotta agree with this guy. And not to be an ass, but the fact you blew this out of proportions and took offense to in any way, is pathetic and sad. The Simpsons and BBT are not jabbing at anyone. If anything, if they were, it would be to those of whom do not and would not get the jokes, cause they are to dimwitted to understand them. While doing so, they are also accrediting us for understand the jokes, entertaining the whimsy behind knowledge, AND globally advertising us “nerds” giving us a brighter and sharper image, giving off the message that were not lame as everybody makes us out to be, can get the girls, outdo the jocks, and can be nerds, as well as be jocks, rockers, or any other social click there is, at the same time. They’re tipping they’re hats to us aso in to say, “here’s to all you nerds out there.” You must also consider the fact that the directors and writers of both shows are actually accredited and well known geniuses, in themselves. Of course you’d have known that if you actually paid attention to the details or at least did some studying and observing before coming to this far off, cry babying conclusion. ?

      • Wow! Pot calling the kettle black! You completely missed the tone and I don’t think that’s my fault. Is this the hill you want to die on? Being the great defender of BBT?! Really?

        What did I say against The Simpsons generally, other than implying that it isn’t as good as it used to be? I don’t think anyone who habitually watched the show its first 10 seasons would deny that.

        It is true that I’m not fond of BBT. In grad school, I never saw people like those presented on BBT. Who the BBT characters remind me of are the kids in high school who were in chess club. And BBT is not smart because it is created by smart people. If it were truly smart, it never would have been green-lit, much less become a hit.

        I might note in passing that I’m a full-time editor for a large tech website. And on that day, I managed to publish 5 other articles on this site. What did you accomplish on 28 May 2015?

        If you want to know what I have written about multiplication tables, you could just enter “multiplication tables” into the search widget. Here’s the first article you would have come upon: We Don’t Need to Memorize the Multiplication Table.

        Normally, I’d blow you off, but I’ve had a bad day and these kind of comments are so subgenius, they make me want to retch. But I’ll pass it off as a bad day for you too. I do hope you stick around. Check out the science category. You might even pick up on my style and like it. And I’m about to publish something so pedantic it will make your head explode.

        • What the poster misses is that “nerd” humor doesn’t celebrate true nerdiness. It celebrates a certain kind of nerdiness which is now highly lucrative; computers, math, science, if one ventured into the lucky subdivisions of such fields. (A brilliant technician who knows how to fix CPU problems isn’t worth a dime next to a game designer.)

          And notice now BBT addresses nerdiness; it must be the realm of socially maladaptive freaks. That’s giving a pass to people who are terrified of being passionate about anything which isn’t popular.

          Mr. Gordon puts his finger on it when he addresses “get the girls.” Certainly puberty can be a rotten experience, and people who don’t quite fit in have a harder time of it. (In my experience, it’s not “the girls” who make you miserable, but the males trying to assert their Alpha status with other males; many girls like nerds more than blowhard bullies. Yet this misery is enough to make one uncomfortable talking to girls. You internalize how the bullies treat you. At least, I did.)

          Anyhoo, I doubt we’ll see television shows anytime soon celebrating people who obsess over different classic-novel translations, or how to fix plumbing correctly. Certain forms of fixation are considered socially acceptable, as they result in eventual wealth. Other forms are “nerdy,” done for their own sake, hence worthy of ridicule. Until HR hiring parameters change, as they always do.

          • That’s an excellent point about a hardware tech and a game designer. What I’ve noted about what most people think is cool is not the thing but that it makes the creator a lot of money. Few people know who Maila Nurmi (Vampira) is and most know who Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) is. One of Nurmi’s last interviews talked about it. It’s clear she had been bitter about it in the past, but she was then in her eighties and clearly past that. Still, she said, more or less, “The true innovators rarely get much success. It’s the people who come after who steal those innovations.” And that’s quite right. Don’t get me wrong: I like Peterson — a lot. But even with all the extra time, I don’t think she was as good as Nurmi in absolute terms. Nurmi was smarter. Of course, Nurmi was also less stable — something that has always endeared me to her.

            I don’t really know about getting girls. The chess club I spoke of had people who had girlfriends. Not many. But they did. It is an wrong stereotype that nerds don’t get girlfriends. There are a lot of girl nerds. And there are a lot of girls who like nerds (who are, in my experience, not usually the nice guys they think they are). Of course, later in life, fugedaboutit, because success and power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Even with my extra weight (although since stopping drinking, I’ve lost almost 20 lbs and am close to getting back to my normal weight — amazing) and being an old, gloomy and increasingly crotchety man, I know I could attract a woman 20 years younger than me. Of course, I don’t want to. Generally, I’ve hated younger women. But now, a younger woman would be in her mid-30s, so there isn’t much difference in maturity level. (Although there still is in terms of the times. I really want the people around me to get my Nixon jokes.)

            I was struck by the commenter talking about the nerds getting over on the jocks, et al. Isn’t that the plot of Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and at least a dozen other really successful Hollywood movies? So it isn’t like The Big Bang Theory is breaking any new ground. Like I said, if the series really were smart, it wouldn’t be successful. I’ve spent much of the last 30 years trying to write plays that are smart but still appealing to people who wouldn’t normally get all my references. That’s how I came up with the idea of combining documentary elements with standard narrative. (That’s old now. My work today combines so many different approaches that I often refer to it as kitchen sink work. But the more you put in, the harder it is to find a structure that works. That’s what I spend most of my time on. As AA says — I think — “work it ’til it works.” It’s BS from AA, but it’s absolutely true when writing a play.)

            But here’s a thought: all my life I’ve been a nerd. But I’m a serial nerd. I become obsessed with something for a few years and then I find a new obsession. My ultimate goal would be to know and do everything of an artistic or intellectual nature. But I have never cared that others thought me weird. I’ve always found them to be unfortunate in that they aren’t able to appreciate the great things. They will never know the sacred. If they’re happy with their lives (and I hope they are), fine. But I would never be happy with such a life. A true nerd either doesn’t care or (especially when young) doesn’t notice that they are supposed to feel bad about being bad at things they don’t care about.

            Thus, I think anyone who thinks we need The Big Bang Theory to prove to the world that we are great isn’t really a nerd. Nerds don’t care. And all the rest of the world knows that nerds are great anyway. You will occasionally see me listening to Schoenberg (who I respect but do not enjoy) but you will never see me reading a superhero comic book. Most of the nerds I know are into 19th century English literature, not comic books. The stereotype of a nerd is really based on what children do. The only comic books I read as a child were the EC horror reprints (fabulous stuff even today) and one post-apocalyptic DC title, written and drawn by Jack Kirby, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. In my adult life, there was a period I was reading underground comics like Vaughn Bode’s stuff. And I read V for Vendetta because I had seen the film and figured that as uneven as it was, the source material would probably be good. And I was right. The graphics are pretty good and Alan Moore is a rather good writer.

            Anyway, I feel kind of bad yelling at that guy. I figure he’s pretty young — maybe even in high school. Although he was acting like an ass. You don’t go on someone’s website, read one article and call them pathetic. It’s rude. Although I did love that he criticized me for not doing any research on the creators of The Big Bang Theory when he had done no research on me. (Not that it’s necessary in either case.) And he clearly doesn’t know how Hollywood works. Just the same, I understand how it can feel when someone says a show or movie you really, really like is bad. I would have reacted that way if someone had criticized Kolchak: The Night Stalker. But I would have been 10 years-old. Today, my knowledge of film, film history, and filmmaking is so great that I know when someone says something like “Plan 9 From Outer Space is so bad it’s good” they are just an idiot.

            Oh, I found the original quote that was ripped off in A Late Quartet. It is from the autobiography of one of the greatest cellists ever, Gregor Piatigorsky:

            “Mr. Casals.” I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata was on the piano. “Why don’t you play it?” asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.

            “Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!” Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.

            “Splendid! Magnifique!” said Casals, embracing me.

            Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.

            The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I played for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello, “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good… and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” he demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he like that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase,” I left with the feeling of having been with a great artist and a friend.

            That explains a lot about may love of the odd in art. It is usually there that I find much to hate but moments of transcendence. Whether it’s low budget films (Or big budget films made by madmen — can you guess the film I have in mind?) or punk rock bands that can’t play in tune. Of course, I also love pure brilliance:

            I better get working. How’s life?

            • Lovely quote and performance by the cellist. That story’s actually so perfect, I wouldn’t believe it in a movie. But that’s because movies often pay homage to “following one’s passion” and are made, by-and-large, by passionless people. Unless one counts self-promotion as a passion.

              It is important for people to learn Internet Etiquette 101: don’t be a blog noob and start fights. Disagree if you like! Just do so respectfully — humorously if possible. The start of baseball season always summons Angry Sports Fans to the Twins site. These, though, tend to be men in their late 20s or older, so I have little patience for their behavior. I’m glad you invited the fellow to poke around. I’ve managed to never ban anyone on the baseball site — yet. It’s tempting at times. Generally they either figure out how to be civil or they leave (or somebody else bans them).

              The rest I’ll throw in an email.

              • The film that ripped that off (much of it word for word) is A Late Quartet. And a movie like that gets made for two reasons. First, it attracted 3 major stars. Second, Hollywood will green-light a certain number of films for adults if the budget is in the $10 million range. I don’t know the budget of the film, but I suspect it was about that and that the actors worked for less than they usually do. But you won’t see a $100 (or $300!) million film unless the studios know it will have broad appeal to teens. There are artists in Hollywood. But they don’t decide what gets made. That’s one of many reasons I like psychotronic films. Sadly, my thinking on the matter is vastly further along than my writing. Shame on me, but I’ve been going through some medical treatments (nothing serious) that make me really tired. In a few months I suspect to be roaring back both here and there.

                Interesting thing I learned. Someone did a poll of people to find out what they thought IMHO meant. The results: 51% “In my honest opinion” and 49% “in my humble opinion.” That’s shocking to me. I’ve been on the internet since 1987. It has never occurred to me that people though the “H” stood for “honest.” It is stupid for so many reasons. In that construction, “honest” works only as an intensifier. I don’t have any recollection of reading anyone using it in that way. It is usually short for, “Now don’t hit me over the head for this because I haven’t given it that much thought, but my opinion is…” If people are equally divided on the definition of something and those definitions are polar opposites, that something is dead. As I stress to every writer I ever work with, clarity is your number one priority. If people can’t understand what you’re saying, you aren’t communicating. You are trying (and failing) to communicate. I recommend never using that acronym because obviously different people will take it in vastly different ways.

                But I know what’s going on. It started out as “humble.” And over time, more and more ignorant people join the internet. I suspect that the vast majority of people who use the term still mean “humble.” But if half the readers don’t know that, no one should ever use it again. I’m not fond of acronyms anyway. Half the time I have to look them up. In the past, whenever someone would do that to me, I would write back something like this, “Good to know! JPPETYBAS!” That is not an acronym, but it is always capitalized. It means, “Don’t send me fucking obscure acronyms I don’t know and learn how to write full words, asshole.”

                I look forward to your email.

                • Huh! I never knew about the “honest” meaning. That abbreviation’s always infuriated me because I usually see it after a contrarian statement (nothing humble about those). “Honest” makes a little sense, if one’s typing a strongly-held (often rudely stated) opinion.

                  My favorite abbreviation is TOOTBLAN, used after a baseball runner is tagged out because of a mental miscue. It stands for “Thrown Out On The Basepaths Like A Nincompoop” (a Tigers blogger came up with it). The best thing is that it works as a word, too! That’s a fun one to use with friends at a game, they chuckle when you explain it.

                  • It’s a wonderful word! I love saying it! It also sounds like some African country, “On the Tootblan savanna, elephants march to the water hole.” When I start my own country, I’ll name it The People’s Republic of Tootblan. We may have to import the elephants however.

                    As for IMHO, you bring up another issue: many people use it sarcastically.

                    We were not built to read and write. We were built to say and hear.

  1. Hello, Mathematician here. I translate that to, “I ate all the pie.” (The Sigma before the Pi implying the entirety of the pie). I actually find that to be humorous as opposed to, “I ate some pie.” Just my two cents. :)

    • Glad to see a mathematician around here! We don’t have nearly enough. I’m amazed at how much traffic this page gets. It’s probably in the top ten of all the almost 8,000 articles I’ve written. Just a rant, of course. But you are reinforcing my argument. Something I write about a bit around here is that what people think of as math really isn’t. For example, we went round and round about the multiplication tables. I maintain that one needn’t learn them. Anyway, I don’t want to get that going again. Plus, I’m way behind on comments. Thanks for the comment!

      • This, I must 100% agree with. I also agree with you when you say we don’t really need multiplication. In fact, we really don’t need many of the forms of math we have in this day and age. Much of it is unnecessary. I would like to further hear about your views on this topic and further discuss them sometime. Do you have a link to your article on this subject?

  2. To be fair, this isn’t a “math” joke as you pointed out. It’s a joke in the English language since “two cubed” in all probability won’t sound similar to the word for “ate” in another language, let alone words for “sum” and “pie”. On the other hand, a board showing “Today’s English Joke” wouldn’t have carried the same weight as “Today’s Math Joke”. More so if it’s Homer who’s going to be in the scene.

    Having said that, I have a bone to pick with you about allowing “two cubed” and “sigma pi” but not “i”. A number called “eight” exists just as arbitrarily as the imaginary “i”. If we all had had only seven digits on our hands, a number called eight wouldn’t even exist. I can’t recall having heard this said any better than from my friend’s math professor: “If we were to include the digits on our feet to count, we would all be counting in a vigesimal system. And if we were to include other arbitrary appendages on our bodies, men and women would end up counting in different bases”.

    P.S: Hm, could this indeed be the reason for all the marital problems, since men do tend to include the aforementioned arbitrary appendage in their calculations? :-P

    • You wrote, “On the other hand, a board showing ‘Today’s English Joke’ wouldn’t have carried the same weight as ‘Today’s Math Joke.'” That’s true. But this “joke” (really more a puzzle) has been around for years — probably decades. I have a vague memory of seeing it as an undergrad — that would be in the 1980s.

  3. Hi Frank,
    thank you for pushing such a conversation.

    But from my point of view, you are missing a point there. (or you have not point it out enough)
    A joke/riddle in general must not be accurate.
    If one can use his/her brain, one will get out of the context that it’s “i” and not “Imaginary unit”.

    In my graduate school (german speaking area) I authored a crossword puzzle.
    One guy came to me complaining: “For that answer, multiple answers are possible. You failed!”
    Then I told him :”Sorry dude, but that’s part of the game, that you have to pick up the answer matching with the other words. You totally missed the point of it, my dear friend.”

    I like what you wrote about models and reality. There, I 100% agree with you.

    Freundliche Grüße,

    • That is the whole point of a crossword puzzle! It wouldn’t be a crossword puzzle otherwise; it would just be a bunch of questions and answers. Oh well.

      I’m not saying it isn’t a joke. I’m just pointing out that most people don’t get math. I’ve written about this a lot. I’ve gotten enormous pushback on my claim that we shouldn’t have children memorize multiplication tables because it isn’t math. But I get the joke. It’s a joke about symbols, however. Any field of study could have the same kind of jokes.

      But don’t get me wrong: these kinds of jokes were all the rage in the college science buildings. And I even liked them at one point!

  4. I saw the “math joke” on another blog post (totally unrelated – think it was to do with solar) and read:

    square root of minus one times two cubed sigma pi

    and thought about it, first of all that two cubed equals eight which sounds the same as ate

    and thought ah, so it’s a pun which would be

    square root of minus one equals i (thus i ate….)

    and sigma pi equals sum of pi (which makes no sense so what is sum of pi meant to equal and sound like?

    and ended up here and really enjoyed your post and subsequent comments enough to say thank you in this one.

    (i’m a bit of a mathematician and a bit of a word geek – basically a pattern nerd).

  5. Interesting article, but lacking one criticism. “Σ”, meaning “sum” to pun “some”, is incomplete. It should read “√͞n П”, since Σ=√͞n.


    Because the writers started the SETTING of the formula, which the current formulation does not complete, as the opening is “i” and the ending is “some pie”.

    Newt Gingrich would know this.

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