Science Interviews


Sun, 12th Aug 2007

"Whats Science Ever Done for Us?" What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life and the Universe

Professor Paul Halpern, University of Philadephia

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Chris -   ďWhatís Science ever done for usĒ is also the title of a new book thatís out at the moment. Itís been written by Professor Paul Halpern, heís from the University of Philadelphia. He joins us now. Hello Paul.

Paul -   Hello Chris.

Chris -   Thank you for joining us on the naked scientists to tell us about your book. Why have u written this? And donít say to make money because that was Boris Johnsonís answer on Radio 2 the other day.

Paul -   Well I noticed throughout the years that the Simpsonís features marvellous Scientific references on the show and features scientific guests and many illusions to people such as Neil spore, Einstein, Darwin and NewtonÖI thought it was about time to look at the Simpsonís episodes and explore the real science behind the series.

Chris -   Well, few people have the sort of insight into how youíve done this,  itís nice this because you get a taste of the Simpsonís upfront and then you get how itís relevant to science in the second part of the chapter.

Paul -   Thatís right in each chapter I look at how an episode of the Simpsonís handles the science then I look at the background behind it. For example, in one episode Lisa invents her own perpetual motion machine and Homer gets obsessed by it and shouts at her: ďLisa, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics.Ē So I take off from that episode into an exploration of whether or not perpetual motion is possible and I explore the laws of thermodynamics. So I find it provides a great intro into some interesting science.

Chris -   Now, how does the Simpsonís sit with you as a professional physicist engaged in research in a US university?

Paul -   Well, physicists that watch televisions tend to enjoy series like the Simpsonís because itís one of the few series, itís not the only series, to have scientific references on the show and it does a number of fun and very sophisticated things with science. For example, exploring higher dimensions, looking into the possibility of time travel, bringing up genetics, robots, artificial intelligenceÖ itís just amazing how much interesting science there is in the show.

Chris -   I thought it was hilarious when Homer Simpson managed to end up crossing a tomato and tobacco plant to make an addictive form of a tomato

Paul -   Thatís right itís called Tomacco and the interesting thing is he uses plutonium to make this hybrid

Chris -   And he gets it where..?

Paul -   [laughs] He manages to get it shipped in from his nuclear plant, itís no problem for him since he works in this plant so he just manages to phone up his friend and get some plutonium shipped into his farm that heís trying to grow crops on. He grows this tomacco and produces this tomacco plant, which is highly addictive.

Helen -   I donít know if this is in your book but one of my favourite bits in one of the shows is when they discover that Homer, as a young child, pushed a crayon up his nose and into his brain and thatís why heísÖ ĎHomerí shall we say. They take it out and he becomes very intelligent and then they decide in the end to put it back again. Do you think, is there any reality in having a pencil in your brain and changing your behaviour?

Paul -   Well itís interesting. The Simpsonís brings up a number of theories throughout the years on why Homer is so different than the people in his family, for example Lisa, who is much brighter and in one episode they attribute it to genetics. Then, in the episode called ĎHomerí which is a parody of Flowers for Algernon, they suggest itís an accident that Homer had as a child where he had the crayon lodged in his brain and that it affected his intelligence, but the strange thing is once they pull out the crayon heís very unhappy. He preferred being not so bright

Chris -   I think that goes for a lot of people in some cases though doesnít it? I mean, not that everyone would have a crayon jammed up their brain but some people find that ignorance is bliss donít they?

Paul -   Thatís right sometimes u can know too much about a subject and you might not be happy about it, youíll be well informed but perhaps not particularly happy about if say you know that something dyer is going to happen

Chris -   Well Paul, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed your book. It had me sniggering at midnight last night so thank u for sending us a copy. Thank you for joining us on the Naked Scientists to tell us about it. Itís out now is that right?

Paul -   Thatís right. Yes. Thank you very much. Itís my pleasure.

Chris -   Itís been a pleasure to have you on the programme. Thank you

Paul -   Bye

Chris -   Thatís Professor Paul Halpen. Heís written a book called ďWhatís Science ever done for usĒ. Itís all about how the Simpsonís, as weíve been exploring, actually has its firm roots in science and you can get it in all good bookshops right now.


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