The science that appears in the episodes of The Simpsons is often times a dumbed-down, simplified, or petite version of “real world” science. The Simpsons is not a substitute for classical education, an AP Physics class or an astronomy lab, it is merely an open door to a new world of experience and perhaps even providing the push necessary towards a formal learning. The Simpsons has, until recent years, been pushing the boundaries of the television censors. It pretty much perfected the social commentary and political satire that saturates every adult themed cartoon.
The science which pervades the series is usually provided in situations of extreme silliness. Like the fish which keeps growing larger in grandpas stories, science in The Simpsons is very much exaggerated throughout. In the episode E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt), Homer creates a hybrid of a tomato and tobacco plant using plutonium he acquired from friends at his old job at the power plant. Although, “exposing tomato seeds to plutonium would be an extremely unlikely way of creating a crop of hybrids.” Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Windscale all three were places where a catastrophic nuclear meltdown has occurred. Yet, in none of these places of ultimate destruction has a three-eyed fish, or similar monstrosity occurred. Radiation, like what is directed outward from a nuclear meltdown, can cause mutations in a beings DNA. However, more often than not this massive of an amount radiation causes death. “When radioactive material is spread throughout a wide region it can boost the rate of cancer, cell death, and mutation well beyond what would be expected due to natural radiation levels and other causes.” At Chernobyl there could be no life seen anywhere for 20 miles outside of the reactor core for months afterwards, although life has since returned and in great numbers and varieties. “Experts estimate that Chernobyl caused thousands of deaths due to cancer, radiation poisoning, and other effects.” So the creature that is shown in Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish, is far from realistic. Seen at Chernobyl, “the mutation rate for the children of the workers who helped clean up the disaster was 600 percent higher than normal,” but “…the DNA changes were not large enough to produce deformities.” But as Halpern states, Blinky’s may not actually exist in nature, they are however, a great representation of our greatest fears.
Many of the science intensive episodes feature futuristic ideas of science. In In the Belly of the Boss the family is shrunk down to the size of a swallowable pill which Mr. Burns thereafter takes in to his body. While Halpern goes in to great detail about the different ways in which it is not actually possible to miniaturize living beings. The parts of living beings, atoms, are not able to be shrunk, or lessened in number. There may however be other ways developed in the future which would allow the family in reality to fit themselves into the body of Mr. Burns.
The Simpsons does a great job of explaining the simple and the complex. From Newtonian mechanics and evolution to black holes and the spontaneous creation of living beings, it is a great source for entry into the scientific world.
This article originally written March 11th, 2008 for OU HSCI 1133 - Science and Popular Culture.