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Original Essays | September 18, 2014

Lin Enger: IMG Knowing vs. Knowing

On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from... Continue »
  1. $17.47 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    The High Divide

    Lin Enger 9781616203757

Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel

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 »
  1. $18.19 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    Juliet's Nurse

    Lois Leveen 9781476757445


Tech Q&A

Paul Halpern

Describe 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.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
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.
In fifth grade I had an outstanding teacher who was particularly adept at making each child feel special and understood. He constantly bragged about the class being the brightest he ever had in his teaching career — which in hindsight he probably said to every group — but it made us feel great. The demonstrations he used were very memorable. While teaching the mathematical idea of inverting fractions, he picked me up and turned me upside down in front of the class. He called this the "PH Factor" (after my initials, presumably) and I was stuck with the nickname throughout the rest of elementary school.

What do you do for relaxation?
I love hiking, biking and traveling on a shoestring budget — in other words, getting to visit new places and meet new people. If I didn't have various responsibilities (work, family and so forth), I'd probably be traveling around the world, hanging out in cafes, soaking in foreign languages and accents, catching spontaneous street music performances, and immersing myself in great books during long scenic train voyages. Several years ago I had the pleasure of reading Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London while touring some of the neighborhoods in the cities where the story took place. Contemplating Orwell's vivid prose while enjoying crepes and onion soup on the Left Bank; what more could an avid reader and traveler ask for?

What was your favorite book as a kid?
As a child I particularly enjoyed a collection called Great Short Stories, compiled by Grace Bechtold Gans and beautiful illustrated by Hamilton Greene Hart. Designed for kids, it includes wonderful tales by Poe, Conan Doyle, and Guy de Maupassant. I was particularly fascinated by Chekhov's "The Bet," where a man benefits from the solitude of voluntary incarceration. It inspired me to hide in my room and read — which must be a hereditary predilection; my eight-year-old son now does the same.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I continue to be amazed by the enormous potential of the internet for conveying valuable information at little or no cost. Supplementing traditional schools and libraries, I hope that electronic communications helps inform people in remote places about what is happening around the world and thus increases political participation.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
One of the figures who has inspired me the most is H. G. Wells. Not just a magnificent scientist and writer, he was also a splendid historian and social activist. I would be very pleased to step into his shoes for a day, and experience the creative mind behind The Time Machine, and countless other delightful stories. Of all the great writers of science fictions, Wells had the greatest power of prediction. He correctly anticipated the atomic age and lived long enough to see aspects of his forecasts come true. I wouldn't mind being on the mark sometimes with a prediction or two, assuming they're good ones!

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
Although my sentimental favorite museum is the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, that helped inspire me to go into science, I would say that my favorite science museum of all time is the Ontario Science Centre in Canada. Start with the location; it's nestled in a verdant valley in one of the outlying neighborhoods of Toronto. Once inside, it's easy to lose oneself in the maze of pushbutton displays until it's time for the museum to close. Along with the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and several other hands-on museums, I believe it was one of the pioneers of informal, interactive science education.

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