-- Good news: All the hours kids spend watching The Simpsons, they also may be learning something about science.
Paul Halpern, a physics and mathematics professor at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and a fan of the show, uses episodes in his classes. Science themes that pop up in the show include a broad range in biology, chemistry, astronomy and physics.
Halpern says that while not everything in the show is scientifically correct, it can spark an interest in science. "The Simpsons offers a great starting point for learning about many scientific issues," he says. "However, some of the conclusions reached by characters on the show should be taken with a grain of salt because, after all, it is a comedy series."
In his new book, What's Science Ever Done for Us? What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe, Halpern discusses science themes in episodes and notes whether the science is real in each case.
In one episode, Homer makes a tomato-tobacco hybrid plant by putting plutonium in the soil. Plutonium in the soil would not produce a hybrid "tomacco" plant, Halpern says. But there have been documented cases of grafting together tobacco and tomato plants to produce a tomato plant with traces of nicotine.
In another episode, Bart and Lisa find a strange three-eyed fish in a river near Mr. Burns' power plant. To counter the idea that nuclear power produced the mutation, Mr. Burns launches an ad campaign portraying Blinky the fish as the next step in evolution through natural selection — a "superfish."
But natural selection takes generations, Halpern says, and successful varieties must maintain a survival advantage over others. To prove his assertion, Mr. Burns would have to track three-eyed fish over time to see whether the extra eye allows them to spot food more quickly or elude predators.
Halpern got the idea for the book when he noticed the number of scientist guests — among them physicist Stephen Hawking and Nobel Prize winner Dudley Herschbach — appearing on the show.
And several of the writers have a science background, Halpern says. Executive producer and head writer Al Jean has a math degree from Harvard.
Halpern says he isn't alone in his love for seeking out science in a non-traditional medium.
"If you talk to many scientists, their first exposure to science may be watching a cartoon or seeing a far-out science-fiction movie," he says. "I know there are many scientists who enjoy The Simpsons."