Science Simpson Style

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 31, 2007 11:12 am

Simpsons.JPGLast night at 8:00, I saw The Simpsons. Rewind four hours and I was sitting at my desk writing about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Turns out they are very much related. Sort of.

A little Marine Bio 101:
Dead zones are areas of the ocean devoid of fish, shrimp, and marine life. They’re basically just what they sound like. Every year, the Gulf of Mexico has this pesky habit of turning into a dead zone when runoff from fertilizers and animal waste in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basins is introduced leading to a state called hypoxia (oxygen depleted water). Excess nutrients promote the growth of phytoplankton (microscopic algae), and when they die and sink, they’re decomposed by oxygen-consuming bacteria. Soon nothing can breathe and that’s the recipe for a dead zone. The one in the Gulf of Mexico can span 8,000-plus square miles (nearly the size of New Jersey). Bad stuff.

And how does this relate to the world’s most dysfunctional family? Well the movie gets its start from an environmental crisis after Homer dumps a silo of pig manure into Lake Springfield. We see a skull and cross bones rise in its wake. There’s no explanation of how this would deplete oxygen, no call to action, and Lisa’s environmentalism comes across as preachy bordering on annoying. But then, the movie is meant to entertain not lecture, and we do pick up that dumping manure in lakes does enough harm to make even Blinky the Fish jealous.

I won’t give away any spoilers, but Groening did provide a little more reason to think about the what’s keeping our lawns green and washing down storm drains.. or at the very least, he just gave us reason to laugh. After all, that in itself, makes the planet a little better too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media and Science

Comments (7)

  1. Lance


    Interesting how perspectives differ. I thought that the movie cast Lisa as a visionary. I was amused by the title of her presentation “An Irritating Truth”.

    I would have thought that you would have identified with Lisa and her attempts to awaken Springfield to the impending environmental disaster, not see her as “preachy and annoying”.

    Also I found it ironic that the movie portrayed “President Schwarzeneggar” as an environmentally insensitive pultroon. Arnold has been a champion of global warming lately and I would have thought that the Hollywood types that make major motion pictures would have eased up on him, even if he is technically a republican.

    I noticed they made Neslon Muntz a “denialist” that threatens Millhouse into saying that global warming is a myth.

    Now stopping the dumping of silos of “pig crap” into lakes is activism I would be happy to support. I think that global warming has distracted from legitimate issues of environementalism such as the dead zones in the Gulf that you mentioned.

  2. Stephen Berg

    Interesting post, Sheril. I wholeheartedly agree!

    Nice picture, too! Love the shades!

    On a side note, did you hear about this:

    I figured you would be quite interested in it, given your marine biology background.

  3. Sheril R. Kirshenbaum

    I thought that the movie cast Lisa as a visionary.I agree Lisa touted the right message, but I think the animators were intentionally poking fun at environmentalism with the reactions to her “An Irritating Truth.” The only aspects that held audiences attention were unrelated to her cause. Not to mention everyone slammed the door in Lisa’s face when she tried to alert the Springfield community. And then there were the tragic circumstances leading to the demise of Green Day.

    Nice picture, too! Love the shades!
    On a side note, did you hear about this:Thanks Stephen. Aren’t oceans amazing?! There’s so much we’ve yet to discover.

  4. Timothy Chase

    We have been having a problem out on the west coast – a fairly massive deadzone in the Oregon waters which has begun to creep into Washington State waters. However, unlike most of deadzones we have been seeing so far, fertilizer isn’t the main problem. As the result of climate change, the land is warming more quickly than the ocean with its greater thermal inertia. This has resulted in low pressures forming which result in a change in air circulation, and this affects the ocean currents on the continental plate.

    Nutrients from below are being brought up to the surface where they feed large algae blooms, and when those blooms die off, the process of organic decay absorbs all the oxygen in the water – creating the dead zone. Nothing left alive but for star fish. Even the crabs die off. There is some question as to how long it takes for the fish populations to recover.

  5. Great post, Sheril, about the environmental themes on The Simpsons Movie. You may be interested to know that I just published a book about science on the Simpsons called What’s Science Ever Done For Us: What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe

    Best regards,
    Paul Halpern


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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