The Intersection

Science Simpson Style

i-139cbb9f9b8b35306206b45e584933e6-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.


  1. #1 Lance
    July 31, 2007


    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. #2 Stephen Berg
    July 31, 2007

    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. #3 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    July 31, 2007

    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. #4 Timothy Chase
    July 31, 2007

    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. #5 Paul Halpern
    July 31, 2007

    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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