Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Simpsons conquer the Milky Way

The Simpsons have now been broadcast to everybody living within a radius of over 20 light years. While this range covers only a small part of our galaxy (100,000 light years across), it does include for example the three planets of the red dwarf star Gleise 876. As these planets are roughly 15 light years away, we will have to wait another ten years to hear back what their inhabitants thought of the first series.

This is just one of many anarcho-scientific-humouristic thoughts you can get when you mix up The Simpsons, Carl Sagan, and some hard science. In his new book “What’s science ever done for us”, essentially a “Physics of the Simpsons” book in the now well-established tradition of Laurence Krauss’s “Physics of Star Trek,” Paul Halpern explores the scientific content, background, and humour of 26 Simpsons episodes (I’m not a serial TV viewer, but this is probably the number of episodes per season?). Highlights include the Coriolis effect (Bart vs. Australia), donut-shaped universes (They saved Lisa’s brain), and lots of travel through time and space.

In the over 400 episodes of the series so far, there have been masses of references to science, from which Halpern has mainly selected those based on physics, astronomy and cosmology. He also displays an enhanced affinity towards the “Tree-house of horror” episodes, in which the laws of science are often broken gratuitously. Thus, his book is entertaining and stimulating, but by no means comprehensive.

While treaties on the philosophy of The Simpsons already exist, crucial topics such as the everyday engineering (remember the monorail?), the biology (what was written in the flowerbeds outside the botanic gardens when the family went to see the smelly flower?), and the maths of the series remain to be explored in depth. (For maths, the book cites which I need to check out soonish!) Also, the book was of course printed before the simpsons movie came out, so it can only offer a "checklist" of possible scientific aspects to look out for in the movie. Many years from now, when the Sun will turn into a red giant and The Simpsons will have explored all avenues of human knowledge, a complete “science of the simpsons” would end up just being a funnier version of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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