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

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

February 11, 2009, 8:08 PM

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. 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.

"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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