Science and 'The Simpsons': A Match Made in Springfield

In 1986, Dudley Herschbach, now an award-winning chemistry professor at Harvard, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work with molecular beams. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Chemical Society of Great Britain.

After his lifetime of accomplishments, what do most people remember Herschbach for? A 2003 cameo in "The Simpsons," where he rewarded the mad-scientist character Professor Frink his own Nobel Prize.

"The thing that most impresses people about my personal history is the fact that I appeared in 'The Simpsons.' The Nobel Prize is kind of low key," Herschbach told ABC News.

"I think it's important that people understand that scientists have fun," he added. "It seems a good thing to me. Science is a very human enterprise. It's like a sport or something. If you help more people appreciate that, so much the better."

For nearly 20 years, "The Simpsons," the longest-running animated series ever, has satirized everything from politics to "Planet of the Apes" — "Rock me, Dr. Zaeus!" — but one theme has popped up again and again: science.

Over the years, laying claim to a nuclear power plant, a science-loving saxophone player (Lisa Simpson) and a nearly mad scientist (Professor Frink), Springfield became a cartoon science fair that showcased everything from the accepted — laws of physics and evolution — to the fantastical — Earth-blasting comets and aliens.

"The creators of 'The Simpsons' obviously have a soft spot for science," said Michio Kaku, one of the world's most prominent physicists and the co-founder of string field theory. "One thing about 'The Simpsons,' everything gets skewered. Everything is fair game. 'The Simpsons' try to deal with real-world situations [and] science impacts lives in many, many ways that we don't think about."

In one episode, Kaku mentioned, Lisa creates a perpetual motion machine, a physical impossibility. "In this house, we observe the laws of thermodynamics," Homer Simpson tells his daughter.

In a different episode, a comet hurtles toward Earth. In yet another, Homer enters the second dimension and becomes, in effect, flat.

"The show talked about forms of geometry that only physicists contemplate," Kaku said.

One of the most emblematic high-tech images in the series is the nuclear power plant where the bumbling Homer works, perhaps endangering the lives of the town's residents when he reports to his job.

In one episode, Bart Simpson finds Blinky, a three-eyed fish, in a river near Mr. Burns' power plant, ostensibly mutated by nuclear power. Mr. Burns argues that the three-eyed creature is the next step in evolution.

And when it comes to evolution, the writers have ripped its opponents mercilessly.

In Lisa's class, Mr. Skinner, the school principal, shows a pro-creation video entitled "So, You're Calling God a Liar: An Unbiased Comparison of Evolution and Creationism." The video goes on to call Charles Darwin a cowardly drunk.

In addition to more obvious references, the writers, many of whom hold scientific degrees from different Ivy League schools, deliberately insert obscure mathematical theorems and numbers into the show's scripts, the show's executive producer, Al Jean, who studied math at Harvard, told the scientific journal Nature in an exclusive interview.

In one instance, Homer and Marge Simpson are at a baseball game where the audience had to guess the attendance.

Page
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...
See It, Share It
PHOTO: In this stock image, a woman with a hangover is pictured.
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
PHOTO:
Redfin | Inset: David Livingston/Getty Images
PHOTO: Woman who received lab-grown vagina says she now has normal life.
Metropolitan Autonomous University and Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine