Saturday, December 15, 2007

Simpsons auf Deutsch (German translation of my book)

I have just received unofficial word that the German translation of "What's Science Ever Done for Us?" will be in the creative hands of Berlin writer Falko Hennig. Hennig conducts a weekly stage for literary readings and seems to be an innovative figure on the Berlin cultural scene. I don't know what the German title will be yet, but expect it to be published by Rowohlt Verlag sometime in 2008.

In the photo below, Hennig is the one on the right (without the glasses):

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Science in The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie will be coming out soon on DVD. Like the series it features wonderful references to science, including genetic mutations (a multi-eyed squirrel!), environmental catastrophe, a rock and a hard place, strange inventions, cycling around the inside of a dome without falling off and so forth. Although my book What's Science Ever Done for Us? was written before the movie was first released, it includes a "handy science checklist" for what to look for when watching it.

A Surprising Trove of Scientific Knowledge

According to a recent review of my book, What's Science Ever Done for Us?:

"The Simpsons, the longest-running animated television series, is a surprising trove of scientific knowledge. In a guide that should appeal to science buffs and Simpsons fanatics alike, Halpern takes a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the hidden scientific lessons in the series."

Read the full review in:

Science News Online

The Simpsons Scale the Universe

A number of years ago The Simpsons produced a funny parody of the classic look at size and scale in the universe, Powers of Ten.

Here's the original scientific video:

Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe

Now here's the parody (click on link):

The Simpsons Powers of Ten

For more about science on the Simpsons you may be interested in my book:

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Vienna is a beautiful city, once the seat of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and home of the Habsburgs. Its coffee houses are legendary, and its pastries sublime. Yet increasingly it's becoming famous for a new tradition--the annual gathering of bartending robots--Roboexotica. (For those of you who have read my Simpsons book, I mention it on p. 97.) As its website describes:

"It is the first and, inevitably, the leading festival concerned with cocktail robotics world-wide. A micro mechanical change of paradigm in the age of borderless capital. Alan Turing would doubtless test this out."

The 2007 festival is taking place this weekend. It's co-sponsored by Shifz, makers of the Mind-O-Matic Brainwashing Machine, who advertise that "a daily brainwashing is more important that brushing your teeth."

Vienna is also home of the band Falco. One of their songs "Ganz Wien" begins with the lines:

"Er geht auf der Straß'n
Sagt nicht wohin,
Das Hirn voll 'heavy Metal,'
Und seine Leber ist hin"

loosely translated as: "He's going up the street, not saying where. His brain is full of heavy metal but his liver's not there."

Perhaps the song is describing one of the cocktail-mixing robots heading to Roboexotica..

G'day Bart and Lisa

G’day Bart and Lisa
In the Simpsons episode "Bart vs. Australia," Bart and Lisa explore the physical phenomena called the "Coriolis effect," and compare its influence on plumbing in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. For my book on the science of the Simpsons,What's Science Ever Done for Us?, I decided to contact an Australian physicist, Joe Wolfe, who has written about the Coriolis effect and runs a great physics website. I asked him to imagine what it would be like if Bart and Lisa visited his university (New South Wales) to find out more about the phenomenon.

Much to my delight, Prof. Wolfe speedily replied with a story he wrote imagining such a visit. I excerpted the story for my book, but here, for you loyal readers, is the full version:

"Bart and Lisa visit Prof. Joe Wolfe," by Australian physicist Joe Wolfe:

G'day Bart and Lisa!

delighted to meet you. No, I don't have a TV, but my nephew talks about you. Apparently you play saxophone. So we have that in common. (BTW, you might like to see: )

So, water in the bathtub. As you've come all this way, let's take some time to look at this carefully. Sydney is suffering a drought at the moment, but in the interests of science, let's put several cm of water in the bath, the sink and the hand basins at my place. We'll also put these pieces of wire in the plugs so that we can pull them out without disturbing the water. Now let's go across to Coogee Beach and catch a few waves while we leave the water settle -- we're
allowing any currents caused by filling the basins up to die away.

* * *

Yes, isn't it amazing how much sand gets in your shorts and how much water gets up your nose? That's what's called a Coogee dumper: the sand at Coogee is often steeply sloped and so the waves break suddenly and give you a lot of torque. No you can't have a shower yet -- it might disturb the experiments.

Well, what do you know? By pulling the plugs out really carefully, and not disturbing the water, we saw it run out smoothly with no rotation in either direction.

What will happen when you go home? Well, in general, people probably wouldn't take the trouble to let any motion in the water die away. In that case, the direction in which it drains might depend on the location of the tap you used to fill it, because that can set up a circulation pattern during filling. If you have hot and cold taps on opposite sides, you might get different results for hot and cold water! Also, some basins might not be symmetric, so in some basins you might tend to get more than 50% clockwise, while others would be less than 50%. Nevertheless, these effects should cancel out. People who have done the experiment in the US report, on average, 50% each way.

Yeah, I know. But people often confuse what they expect to happen with what really does happen. (Well, better to be prejudiced about physics than prejudiced about people!)

Certainly, I can show you a couple of things that work differently in this hemisphere. Let's go to the University of New South Wales, where I work. In the foyer of the School of Physics we have a 14 m long pendulum.!/FOUCAULT_PENDULUM/foucault_pendulum.htm

It's called a Foucault Pendulum, after Jean-Bernaud-Léon Foucault, who put a long pendulum up in the Pantheon in Paris, to give a demonstration of the rotation of the Earth.

We use the wire and the line behind it to line up the cable of the pendulum, then we let it swing in that plane. Good, that's it: it's now swinging exactly North South.

Let's go down the corridor and look at some of the other demonstrations. Have you ever wondered how a computer works? We have a set of displays on that.

Wow, that's fast -- you only took 10 minutes to get through them all. Let's have a look at the pendulum now.

No, not quite the same. Line up the wire and the line and you can see that the cable of the pendulum is now swinging across the North South vertical plane - the plane of the pendulum has precessed by a bit more than a degree. (Yes,
that's why you had to line it up carefully in the beginning.) Correct, from our point of view, the plane of the pendulum has turned (scientists say 'precessed') in the counterclockwise direction.

Okay, here's a globe of the World. We're in Australia, so we're looking upwards at it from the South side. Now I want to spin the globe so that the sun -- let's say the light over there -- seems to rise in the East -- I want it to appear over the Pacific Ocean. That's it. We have to turn the globe to spin clockwise.

Now Lisa, stand up so that you can see the United States on the North side of the globe. What direction is it spinning?

Yes, from your position looking at the US, the Earth is spinning counterclockwise. For Bart and me, down here looking up at Australia's side of the globe, the Earth is spinning clockwise. That's why the Sydney pendulum precesses counterclockwise.

No, it takes longer than a day to make one complete cycle: the period is proportional to the reciprocal of sine of the latitude. The maths is a bit tricky but it's here:

Now, when you get back home, I want you to go to the Smithsonian and have a look at the Foucault pendulum there. What direction do you think it will precess?
Yes, but don't just think that -- check it out! That's what makes it science, the experiment. Remember all those people who never checked out the water in the basin!

Oh yes, the other thing I promised you. Well for that we need a boat, or you have to be very good swimmers. Back to the beach.

See the island out there? If we go a few km further out to sea, we'll find a current going South at about 1 or 2 knots (2 or 4 km/hr). That is part of the major current in the South Pacific Ocean. It goes South to near Antarctica, then East to Tierra de Fuego, then North past Chile, then West across the ocean near the equator, before heading South past the East coast of Australia again.

Yes, so it turns anticlockwise, like the Sydney pendulum. And when you look for the ocean current off California, you'll see that the North Pacific current goes clockwise. So does the North Atlantic current -- Americans call the nearby bit of it the Gulf Stream.


PS Here's a slab of Cooper's Sparkling Ale to take back to your dad. It's much better than Foster's.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Science on the Simpsons is in Style

Lorette Luzajic has written a great article "Science with the Simpsons" that appears in the November 2007 issue of Style Republic Magazine. Here's a link:

Science with the Simpsons

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is the Universe a Doughnut?

An Australian magazine, Cosmos: The Science of Everything, has published an article based on my recent book:

It's called:

Is the Universe a Doughnut?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Stephen Hawking Talks about the Simpsons

Professor Stephen Hawking, who has appeared on The Simpsons three times, has recently spoken about the high quality of the show:

Stephen Hawking Talks about the Simpsons

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Literary Minded Review

I'm pleased to receive word that my book was reviewed by the outstanding Australian book review blog, LiteraryMinded.  It is a very enjoyable review.  Check it out at: LiteraryMinded

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Cerebral Simpsons

There's a great new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that shows how The Simpsons could be used to study religion, science, literature and psychology.

A quote from the article:
"Paul Halpern, author of What's Science Ever Done for Us: What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe (Wiley, 2007) and a physics professor at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, says even though the show is not always completely correct, it introduces [scientific] concepts."

A link to the full article:
The Cerebral Simpsons

Friday, August 17, 2007

Book review in the Guardian

The Guardian, a paper with a long and spirited tradition of independent journalism, is one of my favorite British dailies. Therefore I am absolutely delighted that my book has been reviewed in its Saturday book review section:

Springfield Science

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Transcript of the UK Radio Interview

Here's the transcript of my interview on the "Naked Scientists" BBC Radio Show:

Radio Interview

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Doughnut Universe? Sweet!

Today, two US newspapers, USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer, featured my book in their science sections:

'The Simpsons' Scientific?

A Doughnut Universe? Sweet!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

UK Radio Interview

For those of you in England, particularly those in and around East Anglia, just to let you know that I will be interviewed this Sunday (12 August) on the BBC radio programme: "The Naked Scientists." This show features researchers from Cambridge University who strive to strip science down to its bare essentials. I will be speaking about... (dramatic pause) science and the Simpsons. Portions of an interview with Simpsons head writer Al Jean will also be aired.

The radio broadcast will be starting at 1800 BST on the following stations:
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire: 96.0 & 95.7 FM
BBC Essex: 103.5 & 95.3 FM
BBC Radio Norfolk: 95.1 & 104.4 FM 855 & 873 AM
BBC Radio Northampton: 104.2 and 103.6 FM
BBC Radio Suffolk: 103.9, 104.6, 95.5 & 95.9 FM

For those of you not in that region, country, continent, or planet, there will also be a podcast at:
Science Podcasts

Monday, August 6, 2007

In this Blog we OBEY the laws of thermodynamics

I am pleased to announce that this blog is now featured in Method (The Best Science Blogs). In honor of being accepted into the science blog community, we promise to continue to obey the laws of thermodynamics, especially for closed systems. For open systems (such as the universe perhaps?) all bets are off.

I'm referring, of course, to one of Homer Simpson's most famous quotes about science, addressed to Lisa after she constructs a perpetual motion device, "In this house we OBEY the laws of thermodynamics."

The subject of physics in cartoons is curious indeed. Animators generally strive for physical realism-having their creations obey the law of gravity, the principle of inertia and so forth-unless they are trying to generate visual humor. Then they often veer in the opposite direction, deliberately trying to break the laws of physics to generate a chuckle or two. For example a rock dropping on the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons is allowed to break the Galilean principle of bodies accelerating at equal rates. The rock might either hesitate or plunge at an unrealistically faster and faster pace, depending on which scenario is funnier.

In 1980, humorist Mark O' Donnell published a piece in Esquire magazine entitled "The Laws of Cartoon Motion. It includes gems such as "Any body suspended in space will remain suspended in space until made aware of its situation" and "All principles of gravity are negated by fear."

Here's a link to the full list:

The Laws of Cartoon Motion

The Simpsons is one of the few cartoons that includes verbal and situational, as well as visual, jokes about science. Hence, this "Science on the Simpsons" blog. So, for those of you just joining us, a hearty welcome and a scientific "woo hoo!"

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Simpsons Movie and Science

I was recently interviewed on Art Fennel Reports (CN8 TV) about science, The Simpsons, and The Simpsons Movie. Here's a link:

Interview on Art Fennel Reports

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Simpsons Embiggen String Theory!

From the Scientific American blog, an interesting look at how the fake Simpsons term "embiggen" became used in a scientific paper on string theory:

How a Fake Word From the Simpsons Ended Up in a Perfectly Cromulent String Theory Paper

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Science Fantastic

Prof. Michio Kaku, author of Hyperspace, Parallel Worlds, and other books, has a fascinating weekly radio show called "Science Fantastic." It's part of the Talk Radio Network.

Science Fantastic, hosted by Dr. Michio Kaku

Today, I was delighted to appear on the show, answer questions about science and the Simpsons, and express my opinions about artificial intelligence, time travel, parallel universes and so forth. In between, they played a lot of fun clips from the series. It was a very enjoyable interview.

Another story about my book has recently appeared in the New Jersey Courier Post:

Local author pens 'Simpsons' science book

Friday, July 27, 2007

Moe's in Springfield

Today offered a perfect Simpsons experience. I caught the 9:30 AM showing of the movie, which I thought was amazing! For the most part, the film managed to capture the magic of classic episodes of the series.

Then I went to Moe's in Springfield (Pennsylvania) for the genuine Simpsons experience. It's run by a Simpsons fan named Chris, and has Simpsons murals everywhere, and "Duf beer" on tap. (The single "f" in "Duf" is probably for avoiding trademark infringement.)

At Moe's today there was a 5 hour radio broadcast with Philadelphia's legendary rock DJ, Andre Gardner of WMGK. He has one of the most extensive Beatles record collections I'm aware of, and chooses selections from these every Sunday for "Breakfast with the Beatles." Here's a photo of the event (with Andre holding a copy of my book), taken by V.R. Morales:

Thursday, July 26, 2007

From D'oh to Dudley: How Science and the 'Simpsons' Became a Match Made in Heaven has an interesting story about Science and the Simpsons, which includes interviews with Dudley Herschbach, Michio Kaku, Rob Baur, Al Jean and me:

From D'oh to Dudley: How Science and the 'Simpsons' Became a Match Made in Heaven

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

If You Love Science Like Homer Loves Doughnuts

Philadelphia City Paper recently selected my book as an "Arts Agenda Pick," calling it a "fun, superbly, nerdy read." Here's a link to the story:

In the Event That... You Love Science Like Homer Loves Doughnuts

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Interview with Technica Magazine

Powell Bookstore's Technica science magazine recently interviewed me about my interests and background and has published my responses online. Here's a link:

Technica Q&A

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Plopper the Pig

Could Plopper the Pig, also known as Spider Pig, be the runaway favorite character in The Simpsons Movie? Perhaps it's time for pigs to enjoy a revival. I'm sure Miss Piggy would agree!

As a PBS special "The Joy of Pigs" points out, pigs have a surprising allure.

The Joy of Pigs

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Meet the Geeks

From Seed Magazine, a look at the scientific backgrounds of some of the show's writers:

Meet the Geeks: A Chat with the Science-Savvy Writers Behind The Simpsons and Futurama

Multi-eyed Monstrosity

The Simpsons Crazy site reports that there may be a new secret character in The Simpsons Movie that is a multi-eyed monstrosity in the proud tradition of Blinky.

Ned Flanders seems to be saying, "Hi-dily-ho Multi-Eyed Neighborino!"

The Girl Can Write

Canadian blogger Lorette C. Luzajic, whose blog is called "The Girl Can Write," has written an interesting overview of books about The Simpsons:

Awaiting The Simpsons: The

Here's her mention of my book:

"don’t miss out on Paul Halpern’s What's Science Ever Done For Us: What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe. It would be Lisa’s favourite of the bunch, providing a guide to science themes in our favourite show. It illuminates objective realities that get lost in our subjective cultural analyses and teaches us about genetics (is Homer dimwitted by genes?), nuclear power, and the colonization of Mars."

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Three-Eyed Haddock and Other Fishy Tales

Perhaps some of you saw the New York Times item:

"The oddest fish in the sea… a haddock caught off Boston, which was found to have three perfect eyes, the third in the middle of the head."

For those of you who don't recall the story, don't worry, because it appeared in the paper eighty years ago!

Was the optically-gifted haddock one of Blinky's remote ancestors? Or was there something fishy about the whole tale?

The answer is....

revealed in my book (sorry no spoilers allowed!)

Friday, July 6, 2007

Homer's Last Theorem

There is a great website about mathematics on the Simpsons, run by Dr. Sarah J. Greenwald, Appalachian State University and Dr. Andrew Nestler, Santa Monica College. It features fun discussions of how the writers on the show spent considerable time developing inside jokes about mathematical theorems that would flash on the screen for just a few seconds. Ah, the joys of geekiness!

Check it out at:

Science, Simpsons and Procrastination has a story with the intriguing headline "Science, Simpsons and Procrastination."

Wow, three of my favorite things!

If you can make it past all the commercials, you may find this entertaining:

Science, Simpsons and Procrastination

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Book Signing Tour

I'm gearing up for a book signing tour in support of:

What's Science Ever Done for Us? What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe.

So far, my schedule is confined to the mid-Atlantic region of the US, but if any of you have extra airline tickets lying around that you don't need, I'd love to visit other places too :)

Please join me, if you can, at any of these events:

Friday, July 13, 9:00 PM, Shore Leave Science Fiction Convention, Baltimore

Sunday, July 22, 12:00 PM - 5:00 PM, XPoNential Music Festival, Camden, New Jersey

Monday, July 23, 7.30 PM, Barnes and Noble, Downtown Philadelphia

Thursday, August 2, 7:00 PM, Barnes and Noble, 82nd and Broadway, New York

Sunday, July 1, 2007

An Animated Education

According to researchers at the Institute for Science Education in Scotland, the Simpsons, Star Trek and other television shows with scientific content offer a great way of teaching science to kids. Perhaps it's not surprising that kids are more likely to pay attention to lessons learned in cartoons and adventurous science fiction than through pure lecturing. An article about this educational research appeared in The Scotsman:

Simpsons a Scientific Revelation

Mmm, Donut-shaped Universes

What is the shape of space? Does the universe extend indefinitely, like an endless plain, or does it have limits?

A new theory of space proposes that if you travel in any direction for a sufficient time you'll end up back where you started. It's like the behavior of the pieces in the classic video game Pac Man; whenever a blob disappears from the left it reappears on the right and vice-versa. Mathematically, such an interconnected space is called a "toroid" or donut-shape.

You can trace two different kinds of circles around a donut (with icing perhaps) showing the ways it is connected: a big ring around the outer edge and smaller circles that pass through the hole. Three-dimensional space, if it is indeed toroidal, would have three perpendicular ways of traveling around it. Light would take many billions of years, however, to complete such circles, if it could do so at all.

Scientists are currently examining the fine details of the cosmic microwave background--the relic radiation leftover from the Big Bang--to figure out if and how the universe connects up with itself. Could we living in a colossal donut or something more like flatbread?

Curiously, in the Simpsons television series, Homer proposed his own donut-shaped universe theory. It was on an episode where Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking guest-starred. Hawking humorously remarked, "Your idea of a donut-shaped universe intrigues me Homer; I may have to steal it."

Indeed, the long-running animated series has numerous references to astronomy, physics, math and other fields. Many of the show's writers have scientific backgrounds and try to mix in science with the humor.

Explore donut-shaped universes, androids, aliens, time-travel, invisibility devices, teleportation and other amazing science on the Simpsons in my new book:

What's Science Ever Done For Us? What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Robots, Life, and the Universe

Invisible Ray

Could science ever produce invisibility cloaks, as in Harry Potter or Wells' Invisible Man? When Ray Romano visited The Simpsons, in the 16th season episode "Don't Fear the Roofer," Ray was invisible to everyone in Springfield but Homer. Could rays be invisible in real life?

Remarkably, Dr. John Pendry of Imperial College, London, has been investigating what are called "metamaterials" that possess the strange property of diverting light. Possessing negative indices of refraction that make light bend opposite to its usual fashion, such metamaterials redirect rays around objects in such a way that these bodies cannot be seen at all. Could it be that invisibility cloaks are just around the corner? Who could have seen that coming?

Swirling Legends from the Southern Hemisphere

Do sinks and bathtubs in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres drain differently? In the Simpsons episode "Bart vs. Australia" Lisa claims that they do because of what is called the Coriolis Effect. Is that fair dinkum (for real)?

I asked Australian physicist Joe Wolfe, an award-winning science educator, to imagine what he would say to Bart and Lisa if they visited him at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Here's how he pictured such a scenario:

"G'day Bart and Lisa! Delighted to meet you.

So, water in the bathtub. As you've come all this way, let's take some time to look at this carefully. Sydney is suffering a drought at the moment, but in the interests of science, let's put several centimeters of water in the bath, the sink and the hand basins at my place. We'll also put these pieces of wire in the plugs so that we can pull them out without disturbing the water. Now let's go across to Coogee Beach and catch a few waves while we leave the water settle -- we're allowing any currents caused by filling the basins up to die away..."

What do Bart and Lisa discover when they return??

Find out the rest of the story and the surprising answer to the Australian draining mystery in:

What's Science Ever Done For Us? What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Robots, Life, and the Universe

The Simpsons Can Boost Your Mental Health

An Australian psychiatrist and a director/cinematographer will be presenting a conference report on how watching The Simpsons affects viewers' understanding of mental health issues. See the following story for details:

The Simpsons Can Boost Your Mental Health

The Evolution of Homer Sapiens

The Simpsons episode, "Homerazzi," that recently aired in the US has a fantastic couch scene, brilliantly tied into evolutionary science. The scene begins with Homer as a single-celled organism swimming beneath the primordial ocean. Each time the cell divides it screams out "D'oh," until we witness a cacaphony of these cries. Eventually it evolves into a Homer-fish, then a Homer-amphibian that cautiously crawls onto land. The pace picks up, and then we see the first Homeroid (Homer Sapiens, perhaps) slouching on two feet. A succession of Homers in history follows, including Victorian Homer. Finally modern Homer arrives at his sacred couch and joins his family.

The punchline: Marge scolds him: "What took you so long!!!"

Eat My Lab Coat

Prolific science writer Michael Gross, author of Light and Life and numerous other books and articles (and a regular contributor to Chemistry World), wrote a terrific article in the Guardian back in 2003 called "Eat my Lab Coat" about the value of watching the Simpsons for its science. Here's a link:

Eat My Lab Coat by Michael Gross.

He maintains an intriguing blog that spans topics ranging from biochemistry and politics to Shakira. Check it out:

Prose and Passion

What's Science Ever Done For Us?

I'm pleased to announce that my new book on the science and humor behind classic Simpsons episodes is now available:

What's Science Ever Done For Us? What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Robots, Life, and the Universe

It features amusing scientific discussions of questions raised on the long-running series such as:

* Does Lisa possess the dreaded "Simpson gene?"
* Are there really three-eyed fish?
* Could radiation cause Mr. Burns to glow?
* Does the Coriolis force affect household appliances?
* Is Homer truly a man of many dimensions?
* Could a fully conscious robot brother replace Bart?
* What could a talking astrolabe tell us?
* Which prominent scientists have appeared on the show?
* If Springfield and the world are threatened with destruction is there hope for the human race?
* Could the entire universe be shaped like a donut?

Many of the Simpsons writers have scientific backgrounds and have included intriguing references to their fields in a number of episodes. "What's Science Ever Done For Us?" is an entertaining guide to these issues, just in time for the upcoming Simpsons Movie.