By Alaina G. Levine
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), 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.
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.”
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