All too often tie-ins and cross over articles from fiction to fact are clouded with layers of “academic rigour”, where the “expert” has crafted a version of their own reality that bears little resemblance to the original creation. Here however, Paul Halpern is to be credited with a worthy popular science book, that just happens to use the characters of Springfield to exemplify his well written and engaging prose.
I was immediately drawn into this book by Halpern’s opening gambit… “If you live in Springfield–or any other town, for that matter, you cannot help but be affected by science. If your home isn’t lit by nuclear power, then it’s fuelled by coal, kerosene, wind power, hydroelectric energy, solar power, or another means. Even if you live in a tent on the beach, there’s the sun, the moon, and stars–and perhaps a roaring campfire–bringing you light and heat. For those who reside in caves deep underground, there are glowworms. Each source of power runs through a unique physical mechanism. You simply cannot escape science.” – Wonderful stuff and one I’ll repeat to my disaffected GCSE students.
The book gallops through Biology, Engineering and Physics – with the notable absence of an obvious Chemistry section. Halpern tackles some complex science with unusual clarity, such as; explaining the curvature of space-time by comparing Homer and Maggie sitting on a hammock; debunking the common (mis)conception that toilets flush in different directions in the Northern and Southern hemispheres; the collapse of wave functions and quantum mechanics by exploring the episode where Bart swaps heads with a fly – reminiscent of the classic movie The Fly.
My favourite section deals with the shape of the Universe, with entertaining and educational forays into Cosmic Background Radiation, WMAP and discussions about higher dimensions.
I only have one reservation. Who exactly is the book aimed at? Whilst no formal science background is necessary to access the text, the style of language used implies that Halpern is assuming an educated audience, looking to find insights into popular science ideas. As a text to recommend to students, whilst some of the ideas as accessible (flatland, SETI, genetic mutation, robots, Newtonian motion), the ideal audience would be post-16 A-level, first year undergraduate or as I will attest, 30-something teachers with a drop of spare time.