Scientific Springfield - The Science of the Simpsons

12 August 2007

Interview with

Al Jean

Michael Hopkin: If you are looking for science on TV, you probably would not turn to a show about a dysfunctional cartoon family whose main intellectual thinker is an 8-year-old girl, but if you look closely, The Simpsons' is one of the most scientifically literate shows around and that is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that the shows head writer, Al Jean studied mathematics at Harvard. I asked him whether there are any parallels between cartoons and maths.

Al Jean: I look at comedy writing mathematically. You know it started like a proof for you trying to find the ideal punch line for a setup and when you get it, it is a very elegant feeling and it is a little like a feeling of completing a proof when I was doing math in college.

Michael Hopkin: And he is not alone, in fact, most of the established writers on this show have a scientific pedigree and it is a pretty impressive roll call.

Al Jean: Yes, Ken Keeler who wrote for The Simpsons and Futurama has a mathematical Ph.D., Bill Odenkirk who writes for The Simpsons has a Ph.D. in chemistry, George Meyer a long time Simpsons writer, I cannot remember what his major was, but it was definitely in the sciences and Stewart Burns another Simpsons and Futurama writer had maths degree, and you know when we are alone, you know, we sort of talk about math, but again we have learnt that there is a wider world and we do not always like, expose others to it. We do it in a subtle way.

Excerpt from The Simpsons:  "I know. Well, this perpetual motion machine she made today is a joke. It just keeps going faster and faster. Lisa, get in here. In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics."

Michael Hopkin: There is also a scientific theme running through the new movie alongside typical Simpsons' absurdities such as Homer falling in love with a pig. The plot also features the looming threat of climate change prompting Lisa to present an Al Gore-style lecture entitled 'an irritating truth'. In fact, throughout the shows 400-episode history, it has often fallen to Lisa to speak up for scientific rationalism, perhaps most notably in the episode in which she attacks Springfield's decision to abandon the teaching of evolution. It made me wonder whether the writers have a specifically pro-science agenda.

Al Jean: Our general agenda is to display both sides of an issue and to let the viewer make up his or her own mind. In that particular case, I believe evolution is so scientifically well founded that it is hard to have any sort of intelligent alternative joy.

Excerpt from The Simpsons:  "Creationism, but that is not science."

"It is now. This helpful video will evade all your questions. Eyes screenward."

"So, you are calling god a liar an unbiased comparison of evolution and creationism. Let's say hi to two books; one a bible was written by our lord. The other, the origin of species was written by a cowardly drunk named Charles Darwin,"

"This is slander. Darwin was one of the greatest minds of all time!"

"Then, why is he making out with Satan?"

Michael Hopkin: Of course, The Simpsons also has fun with scientists' social image especially in the case of the painfully awkward professor Frink, who one suspects would trade in all of his inventions such as the sarcasm detector, the frog exaggerator, and mood pants for the chance just to get a girlfriend, but more seriously and as someone who has spent time in the scientific community, Al Jean worries about the negative portrayal of science and scientists in much of the mainstream media.

Al Jean: Well, it is sad because, you know, in my life I have seen science viewed as sort of the saviour for everything and it has almost come full circle, you know, because nothing can completely solve everybody's problems, the disappointment when that happens is extreme and now people are, you know, casting scientists as villains or, you know, not listening to them, which I think is tragic, you know, 50 years ago, Albert Einstein was the epitome of scientists among the public and regarded as a hero and there is not anybody comparable today and I think it shows how science has, you know, have been made to appear in a, you know, more ambiguous way.

Michael Hopkin: That is not to say that contemporary scientists have not appeared on the show. Over the years, The Simpsons has featured scientific luminary such as Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking and the writers have not been afraid to give them scripts that delve into the relevant subject matter.

Al Jean: There is nothing, you know, purer than mathematics of all the things I have ever studied.  People seem really thrilled that we have had Stephen Hawking on the show and no one could be more thrilled than I.

Excerpt from The Simpsons:  "Oh! Stephen Hawking!"

"The world's smartest man."

"What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see your Utopia, but now I see it is more of a Fruitopia."

"I am sure what Dr. Hawking means..."

"Silence I don't need anyone to talk for me, except this voice box. You have clearly been corrupted by power. For shame"

"Larry Flynt is right! You guys stink!"

"I don't know which is the bigger disappointment, my failure to formulate a unified field theory or you."

Michael Hopkin: So, if you worry about science getting a bad reputation on TV, you can take solace in the fact that Springfield at least is on your side. That is assuming of course that you think science is worth caring about. 

Excerpt from The Simpsons:

"Science! What has science ever done for us? TV off"

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