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The Futurama of Physics with David X. Cohen

Published May 01, 2010

In the episode “Bender’s Big Score” of Futurama, the animated television comedy, the character Professor Farnsworth contemplates paradox-free time travel.

“I believe this ‘paradoxicality’ equation to be unsolvable,” he says, pointing to the equation, E=9.87sin(2B)7.53cos(B)1.5sin(B)E = 9.87sin(2B) - 7.53cos(B) - 1.5sin(B), written on a blackboard. “Ergo, time travel is impossible. But I can’t quite prove it.”

Thanks to some help from a “razzle dazzle” band of basketball-playing mathematicians, the Harlem Globetrotters, who “use variation of parameters and expand the Wronskian”, the claim is disproven in a rare instance of televised mathematics... with the caveat that the very fabric of causality may rupture.

Credit: Matt Groening

Whether a doomsday scenario is possible in the Universe of Futurama is of great interest to David X. Cohen, the show’s Executive Producer and head writer, and a former writer and producer for The Simpsons. Cohen has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard and a master’s degree in computer science from UC Berkeley, and is not afraid to use them.

With an omnipresent devotion to physics, and many writing colleagues on the show with backgrounds in applied math, electrical engineering, computer science, and chemistry themselves, Cohen is always looking for places in stories where he can insert “an in-joke” relating to science and technology. He is extremely proud of the fact that Futurama is one of the “few shows that can put in a joke for a physics graduate student,” he says. “And with an animated show, you have much more opportunity to do those kinds of things. In a live action show, it’s kind of hard to put in a floating holographic equation.”

His veiled mathematical homages are usually in the background, and are done mostly “to amuse ourselves,” he says. One of his favorite clandestine operations was an allusion to Fermat’s Last Theorem in an episode of The Simpsons entitled “Homer3.” In the name of entertainment, he wrote a computer program to search for very near misses of the theorem, and found some so close that they could not be invalidated by a standard 8-digit calculator.

“But I felt I could do better,” Cohen says with conviction, and in another episode, he penned another equation which improved the answer by one decimal place. Although it was repetitive, he just felt the need to do it. “I felt competitive with myself,” he admits.

Cohen gets such a kick out of imbedding television episodes with scientific citations that after his shows air, he sometimes trolls the internet to read fan comments about his contributions.

Despite his passion for burying physics treasure in a trove of episodes, Cohen, along with Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons, and Executive Producer along with Cohen of Futurama), made the conscious decision early on that “we would make sure that the story and the humor would take the first position and science would take the second position. As much respect as we have for science, we have to make the show entertaining.” This requires Cohen to bend natural laws, but “we try to come up with an explanation that will amuse scientists, even if it is bogus,” he says.

For example, since the show’s universe requires travel faster than the speed of light, “we stuck something in one episode where we stated that the characters weren’t actually traveling faster than light, but that scientists had in fact managed to increase the speed of light,” Cohen explains. “We like to at least acknowledge it when we know we’re wrong.”

But fans don’t seem to mind. Because Futurama is a comedy and not a drama like Star Trek, “we are given much more leeway” to alter the rules of space and time, says Cohen. “We show a healthy respect for science, so I think it’s okay if we don’t always get it right... the science-minded fans have learned to throw in the towel sometimes.”

Cohen knew from an early age he wanted to be a scientist–he was directly influenced by both of his parents being biologists. “It became a matter of which science I would go into,” he recalls. He had always gravitated towards math and physics and computers, and contemplates that his choice to pursue physics in college was perhaps “a pathetic form of rebellion against my parents.”

However, when it did come time as an undergraduate at Harvard for him to choose whether to major in physics or comp science, he selected the former because “physics was more of a fundamental thing to study, with a degree of eternal truth to it that I felt computer science did not necessarily have,” Cohen posits. “I wanted a real, solid underpinning for whatever I decided to do later on… Physics seemed more unchanging to me, more eternally useful, and I felt like I would have more options afterwards by majoring in physics.”

But he was also always driven to humor, and wrote comedic essays and served as the President of the Harvard Lampoon. By the time he graduated from college, a plethora of his peers were jetting to Hollywood to launch careers in comedy writing. “Prior to that I never knew anyone who had done that and never thought of that as a career,” he says. He still went to graduate school, because, he recalls saying to himself, “if I don’t go now, I will forget everything I’ve learned. I have to keep up the momentum.”

But while a grad student, he continued writing. “I reached the point in graduate school where I had gotten a master’s degree and was at a dead end on what I had been working on as research, and I would have had to start on something new,” Cohen says. “It was a good time to think about what I was doing next. The comedy writing won out at that point and I gave it a try.”

Cohen took a leave of absence from Berkeley and “hung around my cheap, rent-controlled apartment” where he wrote sample scripts for various TV programs. By chance and “pure luck”, one of his scripts found its way into the hands of Mike Judge, the creator of animated shows such as Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, who at the time was looking for “cheap writers.” Before he knew it, Cohen was hired to write some early episodes of Beavis and Butthead, and in 1993, he joined the staff of The Simpsons, where he remained until 1998, when he and Groening launched Futurama.

As Executive Producer, Cohen considers his most important responsibility to be that of head writer, and is involved with every script from its conception through its infancy and as it flowers into adulthood as a finished product ready to be animated. It takes more than eight months to produce one episode of Futurama, from the moment a script is finalized to the time it is fully animated and ready to air.

Despite the fact that he incorporates many scientific references into his shows, he ironically is still unsure whether his decision to study physics was exactly the right one for his career path. Spoken like a true scientist, he admits that he cannot make a final deduction because he “was not able to perform the experiment successfully by majoring in every subject.” But physics definitely helped him—“I feel like I was forced to work very hard, and to think hard and logically, and to try to understand the process behind the correct answer… and those things all come in handy no matter what you do.”

New episodes of Futurama are expected to be aired this year. In an APS News exclusive, Cohen reveals for the first time that in the 10th episode of the upcoming season, tentatively entitled “The Prisoner of Benda,” a theorem based on group theory was specifically written (and proven!) by staffer/PhD mathematician Ken Keeler to explain a plot twist. Cohen can’t help but chuckle at the irony: his television-writing rule is that entertainment trumps science, but in this special case, a mathematical theorem was penned for the sake of entertainment.

Does the physicist-turned-comedy icon have any regrets? “What I do is ultimately not similar to physics or computer science,” Cohen admits. “I would like to have lived two lives, to be a scientist in one... So of course I have regrets. Science is more important than what we do, although I do get a lot of satisfaction out of my work.”

“One thing I worry about is that when we purposely present inaccurate science in Futurama in the name of entertainment, that viewers may hold it against us,” he concedes. “We do have genuine respect for science, and we’re trying, when we can, to raise the level of discussion of science on television. If we fail sometimes, I hope people still appreciate the frequent attempts to bring real science into the show. I apologize in advance for any failures in the future, because I’m sure there will be many more, hopefully entertaining, failures.”

“Comedy writing is not closely related to physics,” Cohen concludes. And yet he does confess that the research arm of science in general has correlations to comedy writing, in that their creative processes have similarities. “On a day to day basis, I’m not using a lot of diagrams and solving differential equations. But sometimes in writing, as in scientific research, you rely on your gut instinct and your experience to tell you that yes, I am setting off on a road that is worthwhile.”

Alaina G. Levine

Alaina G. Levine is a science writer and career coach based in Tucson, Arizona.


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