My Brother The Physicist Answers A Bunch Of Questions About Futurama

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My little brother is a physicist who works as a fuel efficiency researcher (“It’s like Google Maps, but for shipping companies, and we track typhoons and pirate attacks instead of traffic and road closures”). He’s very tall and I call him The Boy and when we were little we had a club that only the two of us belonged to called “The Fun Club” (sorry, Laura). Nowadays I spend a lot of time asking him if he remembers various points in Ocarina of Time gameplay (“Remember when the Deku Sprout told Link he wasn’t a Kokiri? Remember that?” “Yeah. That was pretty crazy”) and making him explain the science behind popular science fiction series to me.

In a way, I am contributing to the culture of mansplaining, but even the most beautiful of misandrists must rest from time to time. (Johnny: “What’s mansplaining?” Self: “…[briefly and wondrously contemplates the kind of outdoorsy, contemplative life that shields a person from knowledge of such a phrase] Don’t worry about it, kiddo. Just science up and explain Futurama to me.”)

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How close were we in 1999 to actually developing commercially viable cryogenic freezing tubes? How close are we now? What’s the difference between cryogenic freezing and just regular freezing?

Surprisingly the technology was and is pretty good for cryogenic freezing – the first human was cryogenically frozen in the 1960s. You basically just freeze the person really quick all at the same time, but you also have to run some ‘anti-freeze’-like solution through their bloodstream to limit crystallization within cells causing tissue damage.

The problem is the thawing process. The technology to thaw cryogenically frozen rodents has proven successful, but we’re nowhere close for humans yet – and it may prove to actually just be impossible. But to be fair, some scientists would believe the premise of the show of someone getting frozen now and thawed in 1000 years when the technology is presumably better. Getting cryogenically frozen on accident as Fry did might be a little less realistic, though.

In several episodes, the Planet Express ship is used to fly to various points on Earth itself, making it suited both for interstellar space travel and also regular, garden-variety atmospheric flight. Is this possible? 

I wouldn’t say it’s not possible, but it’s extremely difficult to imagine that working – there’s a reason the space shuttle ejects its huge thrusters once it breaks through the atmosphere. Traveling through air and traveling through not-air are very different things. That’s kind of like having a submarine that’s also suitable for getting you around the house.

[Ed. note - I WANT THAT NOW]

Assuming they make at least one delivery a week, at what point will the Planet Express delivery team receive a lethal dose of radiation from long-term space exposure?

It might take a while, but the effects would build up. A week in space is exposes you to about the same radiation as a CT scan. And getting weekly CT scans is not something you want to get in the habit of doing.

Some of the cosmic rays (which cause astronauts to report “flashes of white light” when they go through the eye cavity) can go through a shield of lead 0.5 miles without slowing down. So there’s no amount of protection they could add in the future to make it safe – it’s only the Earth’s massive but relatively weak magnetic field that protects us.

In season 3, “As the crew watches a supernova from point-blank range, Fry puts a non-microwaveable metal “Iffy Pop” container into the ship’s microwave, apparently thinking that he can make it microwaveable by only removing the warning label. This causes a reaction between the microwave radiation and the “gravitons and graviolis” from the supernova that sends the ship to 1947.” Explain this.

This is a tough one. First of all, you’d be killed by the supernova emission pretty quickly. There’s also no such thing as graviolis. Microwave radiation is extremely weak (contrary to popular belief) – it emits much lower energy photons than, say, a light bulb. Also, you can totally microwave Iffy Pop, so I don’t believe that story for a second.

[Ed. note - This is my fault, because I should have explained that the Iffy Pop container used in that episode was wrapped in foil and was therefore not microwavable, but I forgot to include that part.]

In the same episode, Fry sleeps with his own grandmother after accidentally killing his grandfather, thus becoming his grandfather. Explain that too. 

That’s just gross. Didn’t George McFly almost do that too?

Why do robots 1000 years in the future adhere to traditional gender roles? 

Robots, while physically advanced, had to start from scratch when it comes to social dynamics. That’s just part of the deal with Artificial Intelligence. Didn’t you ever notice how the A.I. “Agents” from the Matrix were all white men? Robots could learn a thing or two about discrimination from us humans.

In the future, both Pamela Anderson and Richard Nixon have been able to survive seemingly without aging as heads in jars. How would that work? 

Head In Jarology (HIJ) research is still in its infancy, so its effect on the human aging process is not well known. I’m going to guess that there’s a magical substance in the jars themselves (see comments on science fiction and magic in the Animorphs feature), or that Pamela Anderson simply doesn’t age.

The Nibblonians appear to regularly consume animals more than 10 times larger than themselves without any change in weight or appearance (they do not, for example, swell as pythons do after eating something large). They excrete dark matter. Explain this. 

Interesting – matter can get condensed via physical processes up to a certain point, but molecular structure would have to stay intact. Something would have to happen at the nuclear level in order for an animal that large to get condensed into an inconsequential size. And that wouldn’t account for their seemingly unaffected weight.  Where is Z-Space when you need it?

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