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

"Each of the options is a different mathematical irregularity — one's a perfect number, one's a sum of four squares," Jean told Nature. "They're all in the thousands, and they're numbers that nobody except a mathematician would, at face value, recognize as anything unusual."

Even in the family's leap from small to silver screen, one of science's trendiest topics plays a role: global warming. In the film, Lisa makes an Al Gore-esque PowerPoint presentation called "An Irritating Truth" to save a lake from illegal dumping. Homer doesn't get the message, however, placing all of Springfield, and, perhaps, the world, in danger.

The imagery of the series was so iconic that it prompted Paul Halpern, a professor of physics and math at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, to write a book about it: "What's Science Ever Done for Us? What 'the Simpsons' Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life and the Universe."

"I can think of no other comedy show in which science is featured so prominently," Halpern said. "I think it's a fun way to educate people about science, and especially issues in science that influence society — like climate change and light pollution."

"I think it's a good way for people to see that science is a vital part of society, and helps bring science into public discussion."

In the book, Halpern explores several of the show's fictional theories and inventions. For example, in one episode, Homer posits a theory of the universe shaped as a donut. (The verdict on the shape of the universe is still out.)

The book also investigates issues of time travel and teleportation used by Professor Frink — time travel is far in the future, while teleportation, according to Halpern, is possible now, but only at the atomic stage.

"The Simpsons" also influenced other scientists to try their own experiments based on the fantastical inventions of the show.

In 2003, Rob Baur, an operations analyst for a water treatment plant in Oregon, attempted to create a "tomacco," a cross between tobacco and a tomato, earning himself a Wikipedia entry for the feat. The tomacco appeared in the show when Homer attempted life as a farmer, but accidentally bred a cigarette-flavored fruit.

When Baur, a devoted "Simpsons" fan, saw the episode, he remembered reading an old issue of Scientific American in which scientists had done something similar, so he decided to try it. He grafted together the two plants, and after lab testing, determined he had created a tomacco. The plant contained nicotine in its roots, but none in the fruit produced by the hybrid plant, Baur said.

One of the show's writers called Baur.

"They had no idea that it was actually possible," he told ABC News. "They were just throwing around ideas. Tomacco had some kind of ring to it."

But "Simpsons science" is not limited to agricultural oddities and obscure theories that elicit geeky giggles from its well-pedigreed writers. In addition to Herschbach, scientific luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and the late Steve Gould have also made guest appearances, a coveted role to be sure, throughout the show's history.

"I don't know which is a bigger disappointment — my failure to formulate a unified field theory or you," Hawking tells principal Skinner when a MENSA group tries to take over Springfield.

Ultimately, despite its scientific lineage, "The Simpsons" is designed to make people laugh and to poke fun at everyone — even scientists.

"Overall, science is not the strong point of the series, but I do think it helps people to come to grips with scientific things," Kaku said. "When 'The Simpsons' talks about science, it talks about it in a different way."

That way, according to fans both in and outside the scientific community, is pure fun.

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