The Simpsons is one of the cleverest shows on TV. But what, asks Robert P Crease, does a cartoon that parodies nuclear safety and space exploration have to say about science?
Until recently I was surely the only person who hadn’t seen The Simpsons, the cartoon series about a dysfunctional family that is the longest-running animated series of all time and a classic of American popular culture. Then I heard that Stephen Hawking had made a cameo appearance in one episode, declared it “one of the cleverest shows on television” and said “it always has a moral”.
That endorsement by the world’s best-recognized living scientist intrigued me. What could Hawking have found in a show that is said to parody science, nuclear safety and intelligence in general? Had the brilliant physicist talked glibly to reporters, or was he just out of his element in the intricacies of popular culture? I borrowed some tapes to find out.
Succeeding despite idiocy
I saw the “clever”, certainly. The most visible landmark in Springfield, the setting for the cartoon, is a nuclear-power plant. The plant is disaster-prone – regularly plagued by improbable events, dumb luck and human bungling. Homer Simpson, the safety inspector, pushes the wrong buttons, sleeps through alarms and almost causes core meltdowns. So why hasn’t the Springfield reactor Chernobyl-ed long ago?
The reason is that the plant is also regularly protected by improbable events, dumb luck and human bungling. In one episode, seconds before a core meltdown, with alarm klaxons blaring, Homer is helpless, having completely forgotten his training. He plays “eenie, meenie, miney, moe” with the controls, covers his eyes and pushes a button. It’s the right one. Plant and town are saved, and “pulling a Homer” becomes a new expression meaning “to succeed despite idiocy”.
Any serious application of intelligence gets like treatment. In “They saved Lisa’s brain”, the episode in which Hawking features, a council of high-IQ MENSA members takes over Springfield’s governance, determined to use “the power of good ideas to change things for the better”. The effort quickly collapses. Enter Hawking. Introduced as “the world’s smartest man”, his character is pompous, spouts clichés, steals an idea from Homer (that the universe is toroidal), and mishandles his wheelchair.
In another episode, the zoologist Stephen Jay Gould is asked to debunk a purported angel fossil. Homer’s religious next-door neighbour is outraged. “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling how it ends,” he says. “I say there are some things we don’t want to know! Important things!” And the residents rush off to demolish the town’s scientific institutions. The angel, however, turns out to be a hoax, planted in a scheme to advertise the opening of a new shopping mall.
Science in The Simpsons is not alone in being singled out for mockery but is instead woven into the satiric fabric as just another source of improbable events, dumb luck and human bungling. Science permeates the world of the Springfield residents, but their decisions are shaped not by rationality but by habit, ignorance and laziness. Minor advances in science can have monumental if momentary impacts, for example when Homer takes some Rogaine anti-baldness treatment and immediately becomes an executive of the plant because he now has hair.
If Springfield’s residents can relate to science at all, it is at the level of relating to a cartoon character or baseball game. Once, when pressed to name a scientist, Homer replies: “Batman”. Another time, Homer’s son Bart, voicing the maximum enthusiasm he can give anything, shouts out, “Hurrah for science. Woo!”
The very idea of a “moral” – an authoritative message – seems antithetical to the show’s lighthearted, funny spirit and the way it punctures all pretence to authority. For this reason my colleagues would say it has a post-modern sensibility, but I wouldn’t go there myself, because that is precisely to adopt the kind of wannabe authoritative stance that the show parodies.
What The Simpsons has to say about science is encapsulated in the “Bart’s comet” episode. As punishment for mocking his school’s science week, Bart has to help in an exacting and laborious comet search. When the school principal is momentarily distracted, Bart malevolently spins the telescope like a roulette wheel, spots a comet and calls the observatory, which names it the Bart Simpson Comet. However, the comet is heading directly for Springfield. Scientists build a rocket to intercept the comet and blow it up.
As you’ve guessed, the rocket misses and instead blows up the only bridge out of town. Most of Springfield’s inhabitants squeeze into a bomb shelter, but leave at the last minute so that they can all die together. This, too, fails because the comet disintegrates in the atmospheric pollution hanging over the town. “I can’t believe that extra-thick layer of pollution that I’ve actually picketed against is what burned up the comet,” says Bart’s sister Lisa. The one fragment of the comet to make it through hits the bomb shelter where they had huddled for safety moments before. Someone then says: “Let’s go burn down the observatory so this will never happen again!” A newscaster describes the ethos of the inhabitants: “Never give up and never think things out.”
The critical point
Could Hawking really have found an acceptable credo here? Quite possibly. Life – and maybe Hawking was thinking “science” – offers us a constant sequence of false alternatives. When we grab one choice, and find that it inevitably founders, new possibilities emerge and we are spared the worst. Chance is not the awful terrorism dreaded by the rationalists presented by Einstein’s dice-playing God. Improbable events, dumb luck and human bungling sabotage us but they also help us to muddle through, however comic this process may look to outsiders. The things in heaven and Earth work far more perversely than dreamed of by our science and philosophy. We pull Homers and go on. Life (and science) is resilient.
Could this be what the wise Hawking saw all along?
- The Simpsons can be seen on Sky One weeknights at 7.00 p.m. GMT