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

We spoke to Professor Paul Halpern, author of "What's Science Ever Done for Us?: What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life and the Universe”...
12 August 2007

Interview with 

Professor Paul Halpern, University of Philadephia


Chris -   "What's Science ever done for us" is also the title of a new book that's out at the moment. It's been written by Professor Paul Halpern, he's 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 don't say to make money because that was Boris Johnson's answer on Radio 2 the other day.

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

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

Paul -   That's right in each chapter I look at how an episode of the Simpson's 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: "Lisa, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics." 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 Simpson's 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 Simpson's because it's one of the few series, it's 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 intelligence... it's 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 -   That's right it's 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, it's 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 he's trying to grow crops on. He grows this tomacco and produces this tomacco plant, which is highly addictive.

Helen -   I don't 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 that's why he's... 'Homer' 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 it's interesting. The Simpson's 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 'Homer' which is a parody of Flowers for Algernon, they suggest it's 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 he's very unhappy. He preferred being not so bright

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

Paul -   That's right sometimes u can know too much about a subject and you might not be happy about it, you'll 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. It's out now is that right?

Paul -   That's right. Yes. Thank you very much. It's my pleasure.

Chris -   It's been a pleasure to have you on the programme. Thank you

Paul -   Bye

Chris -   That's Professor Paul Halpen. He's written a book called "What's Science ever done for us". It's all about how the Simpson's, as we've been exploring, actually has its firm roots in science and you can get it in all good bookshops right now.


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