A few weeks back, the Guardian explained the appeal of The Simpsons to highly intelligent people. It’s full of arcane math jokes. Author Simon Singh recalls his favorite moment:

“In ‘The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace’ (1998) . . . Homer tries to become an inventor. In one scene, we see him busily scribbling equations on a blackboard. One of the equations relates to the mass of the Higgs boson, another concerns cosmology and the bottom line explores the geometry of doughnuts, but the most interesting equation is the second one, which appears to be a counterexample to Fermat’s last theorem.

“Although it was only on screen for a moment, this equation immediately caught my eye, because I have written a book on Fermat’s last theorem. Homer’s scribble sent a shiver down my spine. I was so shocked that I almost snapped my slide rule.” It seems Homer had disproved Fermat’s last theorem. Singh explains:

“For more than 300 years, mathematicians desperately tried and failed to rediscover Fermat’s proof, which only made his inadvertent challenge even more infamous. Eventually, in the 1980s, Professor Andrew Wiles (now Sir Andrew Wiles) worked in secrecy for seven years to fulfil a childhood dream and build a proof that confirmed that Fermat was right, inasmuch as the following equation has no solution: xn + yn = zn, for n > 2. It is neither necessary to understand the proof nor to examine the equation in detail, except I should stress again that both Wiles and Fermat claimed, indeed proved, that this equation has no solutions, yet Homer’s blackboard proves the opposite! 3987 (12) + 4365 (12) = 4472 (12) . . . . Homer had the audacity and genius to defy two of the greatest mathematicians in history.”

But it doesn’t work: “Although the numbers appear to work on a phone calculator with display of perhaps 10 digits, a closer inspection reveals that this is a so-called near miss solution. In other words, there is a minuscule margin of error, with the left side of the equation being 0.000000002% larger than the right side.”

Still, Homer had a brush with mathematical greatness. Another reason to watch The Simpsons .

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart