Dinner time is the perfect time for conversations and a great opportunity to engage with your children. The idea of Dinner Time Maths is to add a small spark of maths to the conversation. Discuss a mathematical idea as a family or solve a problem together.

Would you believe the Simpsons is loaded with references to complex mathematics and is actually known to be “the most mathematically sophisticated television show in the history of prime time broadcasting”?  Al Jean one of the executive producers went to Harvard University to study mathematics at the age of just 16. Other writers and producers have similarly impressive degrees in maths. A few have PhDs and have left senior positions as mathematicians to write lines for Homer, Bart and the rest of the Simpsons crew.

This is brilliant to discuss with your kids over dinner because it breaks down several stereotypes. Firstly, those who study maths and love maths can be really cool. Surely those who write the most popular and long running cartoon in recent history are pretty cool dudes? Secondly, you can love maths and love to write as well. When these writers and producers left academia for Fox Studios, they became writers and still love their work. They also retained their passion for numbers and have embedded mathematical references into many episodes. You don’t have to just be good at either writing or maths, pursue both! And thirdly, real mathematicians can have pretty cool jobs. Maths doesn’t just lead you to become a professor in a university. Maths can open many doors.

My favourite example of complex maths found in an episode of the Simpsons is from the 2006 episode “Marge and Homer Turn A Couple Play”. In this episode the screen at a baseball game displays three multiple choice options for attendees at the game to “Guess tonight’s attendance”. The numbers are 8128, 8208 and 8191. While these digits may seem meaningless to most of us, Simon Singh, a writer for the Guardian, explains the mathematical genius behind these carefully selected numbers.

 “8,128 is called a perfect number, because its divisors add up to the number itself. The smallest perfect number is 6, because 1, 2 and 3 not only divide into 6, but they also add up to 6. The second perfect number is 28, because 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14 not only divide into 28, but they also add up to 28. The third perfect number is 496, and the fourth one is 8,128, which appears in this episode. As René Descartes, the 17th-century French mathematician (and philosopher) pointed out: “Perfect numbers, like perfect men, are very rare.”

 8,208 is a narcissistic number because it contains 4 digits, and raising each of these digits to the 4th power generates four numbers that add up to itself: 84 + 24 + 04 + 84 = 8,208. The fact that 8,208 can recreate itself from its own components hints that the number is in love with itself, hence the narcissistic label. Among the infinity of numbers, fewer than 100 exhibit narcissism.

 8,191 is a prime number, because it has no divisors other than 1 and the number itself, and it is labelled a Mersenne prime because another 17th-century French mathematician, Marin Mersenne, spotted that 8,191 was equal to 213 – 1. More generally, Mersenne primes fit the pattern 2p –1, where p is any prime number.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the maths that can be found in the Simpsons. Read more from Simon Singh and the maths hidden in the Simpsons here. I’m sure your kids will be gob smacked, excited and fascinated by this revelation.

Our inspiration for Dinner Time Maths comes from Laura Bilodeau Overdeck who is the brainchild of Bedtime Math, a brilliant blog dedicated to providing you with ideas to incorporate a maths problem into every day.

Photo credit: davidsilver / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA