Friday, 12 July 2013

What's Science Ever Done For Us? (Paul Halpern)

--The blurb--
"The Simpsons, the world's most popular and longest-running animated series, is a treasure-trove of scientific ideas and a clever mixture of fact and fancy. Now there's a guide to the science behind the show. In this book, you'll find answers to an amazing array of scientific questions raised in 26 classic episodes, including: can genetics explain Homer's dimwittedness and Lisa's brains? Are shrink-rays and teleportation devices possible along the lines of Professor Frink's inventions? And do toilets in North America and Australia flush in opposite directions? Whether you're a Simpsons fan, a science buff, or both, get ready to laugh and learn as the entire town of Springfield proves that science isn't just fun - it's hilarious!"

--The review--
As a secondary school teacher, I've often found that the most successful lessons either a) have the students up on their feet for part of the time or b) start with something from popular culture that they can relate to before tying in to something more theoretical. As a die-hard fan, I find that the Simpsons offers endless fodder for many subjects (including the two that I teach: English, and social studies). Now Paul Halpern has added fuel to the flames for science teachers thanks to his collection of short essays, titled with Moe's exclamation, "What's science ever done for us?" (Said right before burning down a Christian Science centre.) 

As a lecturer in physics, Halpern is well-qualified to analyse and break down some of the conundrums that come up in the series, including parallel universes, the idea that one day we could all end up living on Mars, and the notion of artificial intelligence. The seriousness with which he covers this material is greatly appealing both to scientists and to fans of the show, and is very much in keeping with similar essay collections that have been released in relation to The Simpsons. However, Halpern's own knowledge occasionally gets in the way, with a few of his explanations having the potential to soar over the heads of some readers (including me...bearing in mind that I essentially have the science knowledge of a sixteen-year-old, if that).

The breadth and depth with which the ideas are explored are generally executed appropriately and successfully. Classic episodes (such as Two Cars In Every Garage And Three Eyes On Every Fish) are analysed alongside those from series 15 or later (such as I, Doh-bot), and such scope ensures appeal to all generations of fans. The serious science covers biological, chemical and physical aspects, from whether Homer's theory of a donut-shaped universe is valid to the possible ecological consequences of pollution from nuclear power plants, all blended into easily-digestible essays. The short essay format also means that the compendium is easy to dip into at will, and the beauty of it for teachers also lies in its blend of fun and education (even if at times it's clear that Halpern is more used to explaining physics to 20-year-olds than to 14-year-olds).

This well-written compilation clearly has fun at its heart, surrounded by a body of science, and simultaneously conveys great respect for The Simpsons itself, making it a great shame that this book has not been authorized by the creators of the show. Naturally, though, this doesn't stop students from getting great educational value out of the essays within. Thanks to this book, I've managed to squeeze media, robotics, ethics, comprehension and vocabulary into one lesson - and all while linking back to students' science and technology module, as well as to the cultural context of the language they are learning (they are second language English students). Now that's what I call interdisciplinary learning. Thanks, Paul.

you may also like
The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer (Irwin, Conrad and Skoble - eds)
The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Mark Pinsky)
The Psychology of the Simpsons (Alan Brown) 

other works by Paul Halpern
Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond (2012)
Collider: The Search for the World's Smallest Particles (2010)
Brave New Universe (2006; with Paul Wesson and Joseph Henry Press)
The Great Beyond (2005)
Faraway Worlds (2004; with Lynette R Cook)
Cyclical Serpent (2003)
The Pursuit of Destiny: A History of Prediction (2000)
Countdown to Apocalypse (1998)
The Quest for Alien Planets (1997)
Cosmic Wormholes (1993)
Time Journeys (1990)

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