Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How to become a Simpsons writer: Major in physics or math

Just as you would expect of one of the writers of “The Simpsons,” [Jeff] Westbrook has an impressive list of comedy writing credits, but more surprisingly he also has an impeccable background in mathematics and science. Having majored in physics at Harvard, he then completed a Ph.D. in computer science at Princeton, where his supervisor was Robert Tarjan, winner of the 1986 Turing Award, known as the Nobel Prize of computing. After Princeton, Westbrook spent five years as an associate professor at Yale and then he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories.

However, Westbrook loved slapstick and punnery as much as statistics and geometry, so he eventually left research and headed west to Los Angeles. When I met him last year, he told me that his research colleagues had mixed feelings about his change of career. He still recalls his boss’s parting words: “Well, I understand why you’re doing it, but I hope you fail because I would like you to come back here and work.”

Other writers on the team have equally geeky CVs, and together they can boast a couple of Ph.D.s in mathematics and a handful of masters degrees in the subject, as well as several bachelor degrees courtesy of the Harvard mathematics department. Others, such as Mike Reiss, lack a mathematics degree, but were members of their high school mathletics team and have retained a passion for all things numerical and geometrical.
--Simon Singh, WSJ, on why there are so many sly math jokes on the Simpsons