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The Simpsons math secret is the key to better security

Apr 11, 20164 mins
IT LeadershipIT Skills

A Simon Singh keynote at InfoSec World 2016 revealed an opportunity for better security by following the advice given to the writing team

Ever watched an episode of The Simpsons?

After 27 seasons, the references dominate pop culture. Whether a devoted fan or casual watcher, most have seen it. A show known for clever opening sequences and lots of references also holds a secret. 

Have you ever caught the math references?

Since the beginning, they are there if you know where and when to look. Sometimes it requires an impressive command of math to get the joke (let alone the reference). 

Simon Singh presented The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets at InfoSec World 2016. His insight was as entertaining as enlightening. 

Singh revealed the secret math of The Simpsons. I realized an opportunity for security. 

Our brains, patterns, and pop culture to explain science

Singh opened his talk demonstrating how our brains evolved to find patterns. Without giving it away, he proved both the desire for patterns and how it works. The key was the power of suggestion. When he told us there was a pattern, we all realized it. 

Maybe it was there all along. Or perhaps it still isn’t there. Either way, he had our attention. 

Our search for patterns is an interesting way to advance complicated topics. His chosen passion is science. Ours is security. Maybe we just need to suggest different patterns for people to embrace. 

He shared an example of how a pop culture song lyrics irked him because of their technical inaccuracy. After penning a clever article and suggesting new lyrics, the artist actually re-recorded it. It made headlines for both. 

Science was front and center. Better, people wanted to understand. They asked questions and sought out the accurate details. As Singh explained, while striving for accuracy, use stories to bring the topic to life. 

Getting it right takes time and effort. But it works. Consider the remarkable success of The Simpsons and how the writers hide the math. 

The Simpsons: smuggling in the math when no one is looking

Turns out there is some hard core math in The Simpsons. Singh shared some prime examples (math pun intended). He shared world class, impressive math. Simplified and slipped into some of the episodes. 


Turns out several of the writers are brilliant, renowned mathematicians. He described it as “smuggling in different bits of math when no one is looking.”

Part of what made it possible was the VCR. When The Simpson’s run started, people had started to record and playback shows at home. That allowed writers to create “freeze frame gags.” 

On screen for a literal split second, you needed to pause the frame to see them. You needed to know when and where to look. It took an understanding of math to realize — and get — the joke. 

The real key was the advice to the writers: avoid doing anything that would scare the viewers.

Include the math. Be funny. Pay homage. Just smuggle it in and in a way that doesn’t upset the balance of the show. Perfect advice for security. 

Persistence, accuracy, and the obvious excitement

One of the examples Singh shared related to Fermat’s last theorem. With plenty of “near misses,” some consider it the proof of the century. The explanation related the salient parts. Without a math degree, it was easy to follow along. 

More important was the excitement in his voice. Singh’s actions revealed a real passion for the work. The Simpsons afforded Singh the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for math. 

We all paid attention. Some took notes. 

Where is our excitement over security? Is it evident? This is an opportunity for us. 

What it means for the future of security

The gifted writers of The Simpsons smuggle math into the show. That creates opportunities for engaging discussions. It even lead to a new theorem! 

How they do it is instructive for security leaders: it takes time. 

They integrate the math into the show. Small pieces, when it fits. They do it without scaring people away. Working as a team, they engage in several rounds to get the elements just right. 

On average, the writing team revises a script three to four times. Line by line. Including the gag. They stay at it until they get it right.

It works

How are you smuggling security into your organization? Integrating it where it fits, without scaring people? Perhaps this is the approach you need to write a better security story. 


Michael Santarcangelo develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success. The founder of Security Catalyst, he draws on nearly two decades of experience of success advancing security in variety of operational roles. He guides leaders and teams on the best next step of their journey.

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