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Original Essays | September 15, 2014 0 comments
There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
Paul HalpernDescribe your latest project.
Which prime time television series has featured Stephen Hawking three times as a guest star, explored the theory of evolution, delved into the concepts of time travel, robotics, black holes, extraterrestrial life and parallel universes, considered ecological questions, pondered new technologies, and examined the impact of nuclear power? The Simpsons is not only the longest-running and most popular animated series, it also offers a fun way of exploring contemporary issues in science.
In What's Science Ever Done for Us?: What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe, I examine the real-life science behind dozens of claasic Simpsons episodes spanning all eighteen seasons. Take, for instance, the episode "They Saved Lisa's Brain," representing Hawking's first guest appearance. After an off-screen discussion with Homer, the Cambridge physicist remarks, "Your theory of a donut-shaped universe is intriguing, Homer. I may have to steal it." As it turns out, teams of scientists have been investigating whether or not the universe is actually toroidal (donut-shaped) in other words, connected up in such a way that if you travel long enough in any given direction you'll eventually end up back where you started.
Another episode, "Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish," motivated me to investigate fishy three-eyed hoaxes, including a story netted 80 years ago by the New York Times. Yet other episodes inspired looks at quantum teleportation, chaos theory, time travel, shrink-rays, aliens and androids. Virtually every scientific field has been addressed at some point on the show, from astronomy to zoology. These offered ample grist for my scientific ruminations. As Homer would say, "Mmm, grist."
When you examine the credentials of many of the show's writers, it's not surprising that references to science pervade the series. For example, Al Jean, the head writer and Executive Producer, has a math degree from Harvard. David X. Cohen, who also wrote for Futurama, has a bachelor's degree in Physics from Harvard and an M.S. in Computer Science from Berkeley. Another writer, Bill Odenkirk, has a Ph. D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Chicago, and the list goes on.
Although science pervades Springfield, as it does every town, it is curious to note how many of the characters are downright hostile to the subject. Except for Lisa, Professor Frink and a few others, whenever there's a crisis, most townspeople turn to superstition rather than reason. This is epitomized by the title quote of my book, voiced by Moe the tavern owner right before he uses a voice activated television. I aspire, in my research, to answer Moe's rhetorical question and demonstrate how much science has indeed done for us. My book concludes with a guide to some of the scientific questions to ponder while watching The Simpsons Movie.
My inspiration is often a large mug of hot coffee or glass of iced tea (depending on the weather) and some melodic, but not too distracting, music playing in the background. If I really want to concentrate, the music needs to be classical. Then I let my mind wander and hope that the muse of science writing guides my typing fingers a bit. The process of creativity can be very mysterious. Sometimes, for certain passages, I envision the kinds of people who might enjoy them. I also sometimes imagine what various editors I have worked with would say about the phrasing of particular lines. So, as you see, at any given moment there are often a lot of voices in my head!
Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
What do you do for relaxation?
What was your favorite book as a kid?
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.