The Simpsons is written by intelligent individuals who generally come from educated backgrounds. This is evident in the subversive satirical elements of the show, but as Paul Halpern points out in What’s Science Ever Done For Us?, it also means they know a lot about ‘physics, robots, life and the universe’. Regular writers like David X Cohen, Ken Keeler, Bill Odenkirk, Al Jean and Jeff Westbrook have a range of science-based degrees – from physics, mathematics and chemistry to computer science. Halpern explores the wealth of scientific information (and misinformation) in the show. He enjoyably recaps favourite episodes and then brings real research and evidence into play, utilising the show’s characters to metaphorically explain difficult theories.
The book allows us to see the multi-dimensionality of meaning in this cartoon that has shaped opinion and identity (and made us laugh) for eighteen years. Parents could use the book as a discussion point with their children. Inclusive themes are ‘nature vs. nurture’, as explored in the episode where Lisa despairs that she may have the ‘Simpson gene’, evolutionary theory, nuclear physics, the history and properties of radium, genetic engineering, invention, thermodynamics, robotics, chaos theory, the space-time continuum, the shape of the universe (is it a donut?) and so much more. While it might sound heavygoing, Halpern injects every explanation with relevance and humour. Much still floats over the head of the literary-minded individual, but I was pleased to learn that the toilets here ‘down-under’ do not flush all that different from the ones in the northern hemisphere! And no, we don’t ride kangaroos to school either. He mentions a favourite episode of mine ‘Lisa the Sceptic’ where Lisa uncovers what appears to be the skeleton of an angel. The angel turns out to be a cheap publicity stunt for a new shopping mall. The reason I have always enjoyed the episode is due to the brilliant satire on rampant and blind consumerism, following on from blind religious faith – both enemies to scientific rationality. Lisa’s reasoning leads her to attempt to dispel the myth of the angel. Halpern informs us that the guest scientist that stars in the episode is Stephen Jay Gould. Halpern tells us all about fossil history, Darwinism, and radiometric dating techniques, revealing that there is even more to the episode that I already enjoyed for its cleverness and validity.
What’s Science Ever Done For Us? is highly recommended for any Simpsons fan due to its ability to recreate the joy of viewing well-known episodes and putting a scientific spin on them. It’s suitable for curious kids and adults alike. It closes with a humorous and handy checklist so one can explore a scientific viewing of The Simpsons Movie. As I was going through Season 1 of Futurama whilst reading the book, I noticed the high proliferation of (often irrational) science in the show, and I hope Paul tackles it next!
Paul Halpern’s MySpace
Respected scientist Stephen Hawking on why he appeared on The Simpsons –