A ‘Futurama’ Writer Invented a New Math Theorem For a Single Episode of the Show
Futurama is one of the best science fiction TV shows of all time and unsurprisingly relies heavily on math.
First, no matter how many times it gets canceled, it seems to adjust the numbers and pop back into existence. Second, many Futurama writers have math degrees and thought it was hilarious to work complicated math into an animated series.
Many of those same writers on Futurama also wrote for The Simpsons. The Simpsons are known for many things, but two of them are predicting the future and making math jokes. So it is unsurprising that Futurama would be packed with math jokes too.
But it’s one thing to put the occasional math joke in your series and quite another to invent your own mathematical language or create a mathematical theorem.
The ‘Futurama’ staff
Several of the Futurama staff are actual mathematicians. Writer David X. Cohen studied theoretical computer science, was a competitive mathlete and has several published mathematical research papers.
Writer Ken Keeler has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and was the creator of the theorem we will be discussing later. Writer Jeff Westbrook has an Erdos number of three and created the mathematical language at Futurama’s heart. These are not amateur mathematicians. They are some heavy hitters.
Math jokes wherever they fit
If you watch Futurama long enough, you will discover that the writers insert math humor into almost every episode. From an episode based on a fourth-dimensional space whale named Mobius Dick to The Route of All Evil, which features a mathematical oddity called a Klein Bottle as a significant plot point.
The writers had a major passion for mathematics and crammed as much as they could into every episode.
‘Futurama’ writers created their own mathematical language
Jeff Westbrook thought it would be fun to create an alien language totally based on math. It first appears in Futurama in season four, episode five, Leela’s Homeworld; they called it “Alienese.” because, of course, they did, and it was based on a simple math cipher and was used throughout the rest of the series.
They weren’t happy with the first iteration of Alienese AL1 (alien language one), so they decided to create a more advanced mathematical language called AL2. After completing these languages, they appear in almost every episode of Futurama.
The creation of a new mathematical theorem
The Prisoner of Brenda from the sixth season was just another episode of the series. The basic plot involved a brain-switching machine that swapped the minds of the two people that entered it. But once used, the device couldn’t be used twice to exchange the same two minds.
Once everyone was switched, they had to take a torturous journey of logic and math to get everyone back to normal. As they began to discuss the math involved in everyone getting their own brain back, they quickly realized that it might not even be mathematically possible. Cohen demanded some proof that all the minds could be returned.
According to Mental Floss, even though the writer’s room had numerous math minds, it took writer Ken Keller, who had a Ph.D. in math, to write the original proof.
The proof Keeler created is quite complicated. Keeler’s theorem has been the jumping-off point for several other theorems and was written up as “Keeler’s Theorem and Products of Distinct Transpositions” in American Mathematical Monthly.
While you don’t need a math degree to watch Futurama, it couldn’t hurt. Even if you could slow down all the signs long enough to examine them and see every math joke you’d still have to be exceptionally educated to understand some of them.
It does say something about the power of the human mind, though that a math theorem was created for a comedy animated TV show. Humans and math is something you can always count on.