5 science lessons from The Simpsons
How everyone’s favourite animated sitcom has been teaching us the wonders of science for over 25 years…
1. The conservation of angular momentum
During a field trip gone wrong, Principal Skinner uses this physics principle to rotate a crate full of pianos that are about to squash Ralph.
Principal Skinner starts running in a circle to impart angular momentum to the crate (via GIPHY)
Angular momentum is a measure of an object’s tendency to continue to spin, and is a property that all rotating or orbiting objects have. What is important is that angular momentum cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transferred. By running in a circle, Skinner transfers angular momentum to the crate, causing it to rotate. (“How The Test Was Won” – season 20, episode 11)
The crate spins, saving the oblivious Ralph from getting squished by a falling piano! (via GIPHY)
2. Newton’s third law
When Bart buys an abandoned factory, he unknowingly experiments with Newton’s third law – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The fire extinguisher expels foam from the nozzle at a high pressure, creating an equal force in the opposite direction, sending Bart speeding backwards. (“Homer’s Enemy” – season 8, episode 23)
Please don’t try this at home… via GIPHY
3. Photon pressure
While having his mugshot taken at the police station, Mr Burns is knocked down by the camera’s bright flash. This is an exaggeration of the principle that solar sail spacecraft use to travel through space. Photons of light have momentum that is transferred to objects they hit. The amount of momentum per photon is minuscule however, so acceleration by this method takes a very long time. That said, solar sail craft can (eventually) reach very high speeds this way. (“American History X-cellent” – season 21, episode 17)
Real-life solar sails accelerate at a much slower rate than Mr Burns… (via GIPHY)
When the teachers go on strike, Lisa soon gets bored and builds a perpetual-motion machine, to which Homer responds “Lisa, in this house, we OBEY they laws of thermodynamics!”. A perpetual-motion machine is a theoretical device that can keep moving indefinitely without a power source. Such a machine is impossible, as it violates the first and/or second laws of thermodynamics. The first law is similar to the conservation of energy, stating that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred. Without a power source, a perpetual-motion machine would effectively be creating kinetic energy from nothing. The second law states that heat always flows from hotter to colder areas, unless work is performed on the system to reverse the flow. Motion creates heat through friction, so useable energy is lost and the machine would not be able to run forever. (“The PTA Disbands” – season 6, episode 21).
“This perpetual-motion machine she made today is a joke. It just keeps going faster and faster.” via GIPHY
5. Units are important!
Mr Burns’ ignorance of the metric system leads to him buying an ineffective booby-trap. Units are always important to consider in calculations, for anything from architecture to transport. A famous example of how such simple mistakes can lead to disaster was the Mars Climate Orbiter, built by a NASA team with help from a contractor. NASA used metric measurements while the contractor used imperial. These different units confused the software, sending the $125 million probe crashing into the Red Planet. (“Who Shot Mr Burns, Part 1” – season 6, episode 25).
“Hmm, sounded large when I ordered it….” via GIPHY
There are plenty more science lessons in The Simpsons, let us know your favourites in the comments below!
“Hurrah for science! Wooo!!” via GIPHY
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