From micro pigs to the doping dangers of a poppy seed bagel, life may be imitating the US sitcom
When Jerry Seinfeld starts his UK tour, listen out for a science joke. From early on in his TV career, the comedian poked fun at science. In his 1981 HBO debut, he said of weather forecasts: And then my favourite part, the satellite photo. This is really helpful. A photograph of the Earth from 10,000 miles away. Can you tell if you should take a sweater or not from that shot?
His eponymous 90s sitcom is also packed with nuanced references to science, with the storylines of some of the most famous episodes centred on it: George Costanza pretends to be a scientist in The Marine Biologist, while in The Abstinence he becomes a boffin after swearing off sex. In The Non-Fat Yogurt, Kramer has a romantic fling in a lab and inadvertently spoils an experiment testing whether the frozen snack is as healthy as it sounds.
Academics have written volumes about the sociology and philosophy of Seinfeld, but the role of science has been left relatively unexplored. In an attempt to redress this, I have recently published a peer-reviewed paper on the subject in the Journal of Science and Popular Culture.
Researchers have brought science and Seinfeld together in other ways: in 2014, mathematicians from the University of Vermont quantified the sitcoms happiest characters and seasons (Kramer and season 5 respectively). In 2017, Seinfeld fan and freelance scientific editor John McCool exposed the murky practices of a predatory journal one that offers publication without proper peer review in exchange for payment. The journal accepted a paper he submitted under the name of Dr Martin van Nostrand, a pseudonym used by Kramer when impersonating a doctor, on the topic of uromycitisis a fake medical condition invented by Seinfeld. And a popular US dermatologist and a TV star calls herself Dr Pimple Popper, inspired by the derogatory name Jerry uses for a doctor hes dating.
Some viewers have gone to great lengths to find out whether the science in Seinfeld stands up. The Film Theorists YouTube channel examined whether its really possible to die from exposure to toxic glue on old envelopes, as Georges fiance Susan did in the series (reassuringly, they say, its not). And what about Elaine failing a drug test after eating a poppy seed bagel? This was exactly what happened to one Pennsylvania mother, whose baby was taken away by welfare authorities until the mistake was cleared up.
A lot of the science in Seinfeld comes from Jerrys standup acts within the show. Somebody, I assume, genetically engineered these ponies, he says in The Pony Remark. Do you think they can make them any size? I mean, could they make them, like, the size of a quarter, if they wanted? That would be fun for Monopoly, though, wouldnt it? The suggestion is absurd, but in a case of life imitating fiction, scientists are now using gene editing to create miniature animals, such as micro pigs, to sell as pets.
In the opening standup scene of The Mango, Jerry says: How about that seedless watermelon? What an invention, scientists are working on this. You know, other scientists devote their lives to fighting cancer, Aids, heart disease. These guys are going: No, Im focusing on melon. Oh sure, thousands of people are dying needlessly. But this [makes spitting noise], thats gotta stop. While the diseases Jerry mentioned still havent been cured, scientists today are still engaged in the quest to engineer seedless fruits, including tomatoes.