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

The iconic cartoon has flirted with space travel, evolution and Stephen Hawking.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 12:20 AM

July 26, 2007 — -- 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. Once the crisis is averted, Moe the bartender says, "Let's go burn down the observatory so this will never happen again."

In yet another, Homer enters the second dimension and becomes, in effect, flat.